House Republicans Have America At The Brink Of A Shutdown

But avoiding one, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell notes, would “require that everyone rows in the same direction.”
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Mike Johnson addresses reporters February 15.Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

President Joe Biden needs congressional leaders to hammer out their differences at a White House meeting Tuesday as a partial government shutdown looms at the end of the week. But whether the outcome will be amenable is unclear: Even as Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans plead with their lower chamber counterparts to avoid a shutdown, conservatives in Mike Johnson’s House conference seem open to following through on their shutdown threats. “I think it could whet their appetite,” a House Republican told Axios of a possible partial shutdown this weekend.

A partial shutdown would be damaging enough. But a full shutdown, which would take effect a week later, on March 8, a day after the president addresses the nation in the State of the Union, would be even more destructive. “Shutting down the government is harmful to the country,” McConnell warned Monday on the Senate floor. “And it never produces positive outcomes—on policy or politics.”

Avoiding that, the Senate minority leader said, would “require that everyone rows in the same direction.”

Easier said than done. Right-wing members of the House have pressed Johnson, the speaker with an increasingly tenuous grasp on his gavel, to use the appropriations process to block various Biden initiatives, including on the climate, gun control, transgender care, and reproductive healthcare—a stand that would, of course, doom the measures in the Senate. Democratic leaders are urging their counterparts to “resist the centrifugal pull of extremism emanating from the hard right,” as Majority Leader Chuck Schumer put it Monday. “I am hopeful that pragmatic Republicans will engage in responsible governance by working with Democrats to avoid a shutdown this week,” Schumer said on the floor. “Time is short.” But as the House Republican told Axios, it seems that “there’s no plan” from Johnson, who claims his members are negotiating in “good faith,” even as they push absurd policy riders, like zeroing out Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’s salary. 

We’ve seen this kind of brinkmanship from House Republicans before—both under Kevin McCarthy and his successor. But McCarthy’s deal with Democrats cost him his job, and Johnson was still in his honeymoon phase when he got his “laddered” stopgap to the president’s desk. The speaker’s standing has weakened since then, and it’s unclear how much grace he’ll get from his members if he does not heed the Freedom Caucus’s call for “significant policy changes.” “We can’t let the swamp dictate the terms,” Chip Roy of the Freedom Caucus wrote Monday, criticizing his party leadership for its “tired excuses” and “capitulation” to Democrats. “If we want to achieve something different, we have to do something different.”

Does that mean a shutdown? Or will lawmakers find a way toward a continuing resolution (which Republican Senator John Cornyn suggested to NBC News was the most likely outcome)? “I’m hopeful they can all get done,” Democratic Senator Jon Tester, a top appropriator, told Politico. But with negotiating partners like these House Republicans, who knows?