Today in Congress: Johnson’s inexperience showing; Ukraine stalemate continues

House and Senate negotiators reached agreement on a major defense and national security policy bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, on Wednesday. It’s likely to be the only legislative accomplishment they achieve before leaving for the the end of the year, if it does indeed pass. The bill authorizes nearly $900 billion in defense and national security, though it doesn’t include funding—it just directs where the eventual funding bill will be spent. What the new House-Senate conference report doesn’t do is overturn the Pentagon’s abortion policy or strip health care from transgender troops.

That’s enough to have members of the hard-right House, which loaded their version of the bill up with all those toxic provisions, howling and vowing to vote against the bill. The bigger problem in the House, though, is Speaker Mike Johnson’s bungling of another provision in the NDAA. The conference committee decided to add a short-term extension of the nation’s warrantless surveillance powers in the bill, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, after several misfires on the issue from Johnson.

In the course of the last week or so, Johnson has taken three different positions on getting that done. On Nov. 29, he said he wanted to include an extension of it until Feb. 2. Then on Tuesday of this week, he told the GOP conference that he would put two competing reauthorization bills—one from House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan and another from House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner—on the floor in a head-to-head matchup. Whichever bill got the most votes would be sent to the Senate. Punchbowl News reported that he had instructed the members of the defense authorization conference to keep the FISA extension out of the bill, and “got cheers from conservatives for this statement.” Then on Wednesday, he made a complete about-face, agreeing to include an extension of the surveillance powers until April.

That same day, Jordan’s committee passed his bipartisan overhaul of FISA in committee by a 35-2 margin. Jordan had every expectation of his bill passing and wanted it to go to the floor next week, as he thought Johnson had promised. That’s precisely the kind of indecision and flip-flopping that already has Johnson in trouble with his fractious caucus, and since they are all unappeasable, it’s not going to get any better for him.

The Senate took up the defense authorization on Thursday with the initial procedural vote, which gives Johnson the weekend to try to smooth ruffled feathers and get the bill done on their side next week, likely the last substantive thing that will happen before they leave for Christmas.

That’s the worry for Ukraine and other countries in need of aid: that the House will leave town before the Senate passes its $110.5 billion supplemental foreign assistance package for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. There’s been no advance in the stalemate on that issue since GOP senators threw their border security tantrum Tuesday. It’s looking likelier by the day that the urgently needed aid for Ukraine is not going to be passed before the end of the year.

And when Congress returns in January, as Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington reminds everyone, they’re going to have to get serious about passing government funding. Her concern is that Johnson’s supposed fallback proposal—to just extend current funding until the end of the fiscal year—will end up being the default. "It’s dangerous and a non-starter," the Senate Appropriations Committee chair told Politico Wednesday. "Everybody needs to understand that it’s dangerous, and we can’t go there."

She’s right to be worried. The budget agreement that President Joe Biden and former Speaker Kevin McCarthy made back in May tried to avert just that eventuality by levying cuts if lawmakers extended funding with continuing resolutions. The $777 billion now budgeted for non-defense programs would plummet to $704 billion if regular funding bills aren’t passed.

Murray is also right to be worried that it’s Johnson in charge of figuring this out for the House. His combination of inexperience and arrogance makes him an unpredictable and dangerous negotiating partner.


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Live coverage: The government shutdown clock is ticking

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy blinked Saturday morning, doing an about-face on government funding. He abandoned the hard-right provisions in his last government funding bill and offered a stripped-down version of the Senate’s proposed continuing resolution. The new CR includes 45 days of continued funding, but strips out Ukraine funding.

That all sounds fine, except that McCarthy dropped this bill on House Democrats and told them the vote would be held immediately, and Democrats have found multiple issues in the short bill during a delay they created by asking for the House to adjourn. Democrats continue to object to being jammed by McCarthy, and the House is now delaying a vote, with Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries holding the floor using his “magic minute,” the unlimited debate time afforded to leadership. The Senate was supposed to have started work on its CR at 1 p.m. ET, but is also in a holding pattern, waiting to see what the House does.

As a matter of tactics, Senate and House Democrats should defeat this continuing resolution. McCarthy has already blinked, deciding a government shutdown is more damaging than a vote on his leadership. They should push their advantage.

UPDATE: Saturday, Sep 30, 2023 · 7:00:13 PM +00:00 · Joan McCarter

Democrats just saved McCarthy’s butt, by the way. The vote was 335-91, with 209 Dems and 126 Republicans voting for it, 90 GOP noes. Now comes the fight over McCarthy’s speakership, and Democrats need to use this to get some concessions from him before they help. First, he has abide by the debt ceiling agreement on appropriations and  a mechanism to avoid another shutdown fight next year. Second, no more impeachment crap.

UPDATE: Saturday, Sep 30, 2023 · 6:47:44 PM +00:00 · Joan McCarter

The emerging Dem narrative. It’s true as far as it goes, and the defeat of the draconian cuts and racist border policies the GOP pushed yesterday is significant. The Senate could still fight for Ukraine.

MAGA Republicans have surrendered. All extreme right-wing policies have been removed from the House spending bill. The American people have won.

— Hakeem Jeffries (@RepJeffries) September 30, 2023

UPDATE: Saturday, Sep 30, 2023 · 6:43:50 PM +00:00 · Joan McCarter

Smattering of applause on the floor as it hit the 2/3rds threshold of 290. So the question now is whether the Senate will prioritize Ukraine over having the rest of their weekend free, and swallow it. Judging by the response there so far, they’ll vote for their weekend. We’ll see if they have any objections to the other stuff the House stripped out from/snuck into their bill.

UPDATE: Saturday, Sep 30, 2023 · 6:35:03 PM +00:00 · Joan McCarter

And that’s that. This is bad news for Ukraine.

NEWS: Jeffries telling Dems to vote for the CR

— Heather Caygle (@heatherscope) September 30, 2023

UPDATE: Saturday, Sep 30, 2023 · 6:33:32 PM +00:00 · Joan McCarter

McConnell reportedly pushed his conference to hold out for their bill, with Ukraine aid. He was overruled.

UPDATE: Saturday, Sep 30, 2023 · 6:31:15 PM +00:00 · Joan McCarter

The House is voting now on the new funding bill. It needs 2/3rds to pass. Expect the majority of Dems to hold out on voting until they see how many Republicans oppose it. 

UPDATE: Saturday, Sep 30, 2023 · 6:25:57 PM +00:00 · Joan McCarter

One hangup here for everyone, a provision regarding member pay that looks like a really sneaky move by the GOP to get a raise.

UPDATE: Saturday, Sep 30, 2023 · 6:23:02 PM +00:00 · Joan McCarter

Senate GOP is now saying they won’t vote for the CR they negotiated, because they want to give McCarthy a chance to get this through. Majority Leader Schumer is reportedly postponing the next procedural vote to see what happens in the House.

UPDATE: Saturday, Sep 30, 2023 · 6:19:01 PM +00:00 · Joan McCarter

Jeffries wrapped, after an impassioned speech. “You dropped this bill at the eleventh hour today and gave  the American people minutes to evaluate it. That's unacceptable,” he told Republicans. General debate is now continuing. It’s under suspension of the rules, so it needs 2/3rds to pass. It’s not at all clear right now what the majority of Democrats will do.

Biden, Schumer are doing what they have to do: Let McCarthy fail

By the end of Tuesday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was having a very bad week. He failed on two critical votes that were supposed to serve as a challenge to the chief antagonists in his Republican conference. McCarthy declared defeat for the day, leaving before 5 PM, then dismissed the House early on Wednesday, with no clear plan for steering away from the impending government shutdown.

It’s a trajectory of McCarthy’s own making, and this time around, he’s not going to get help from President Joe Biden or Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to correct it. The White House has a good reason: The last time Biden bailed him out, McCarthy reneged on their deal. “We agreed to the budget deal and a deal is a deal — House GOP should abide by it,” a White House official told Politico. Their “chaos is making the case that they are responsible if there is a shutdown.”

The anonymous official is referring to the budget agreement that Biden and McCarthy reached to end the Republican debt limit hostage-taking earlier this year. Biden accepted cuts to next year’s budget in that agreement with McCarthy, who immediately capitulated to pressure from GOP extremists and reneged on the deal. The White House let him have a win on that one, in the spirit of good governance and saving the global economy, and McCarthy immediately tore up the agreement.

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So instead, the Biden administration is preparing for a shutdown and messaging on it, focusing on how disastrous the additional cuts that McCarthy is pushing would be. In a memo on Tuesday, the White House said, “The ​​continuing resolution [Republicans] introduced this week makes indiscriminate cuts to programs that millions of hardworking Americans count on—violating the agreement the Speaker negotiated with President Biden and rejecting the bipartisan approach of the Senate.”

The White House estimates the results of those cuts becoming permanent would mean, among other things: cutting 800 Customs and Border Protection agents; eliminating 110,000 Head Start positions for children; 60,000 seniors losing access to food services like Meals on Wheels; and 300,000 households, including tens of thousands of veterans and seniors, losing housing vouchers and being put at risk of homelessness. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Focusing on McCarthy as an unreliable (not to mention incompetent) dealmaker is part of the calculus for Democrats in making sure that he and his fellow Republicans own the coming debacle. “I sympathize with the speaker,” Schumer said on the floor Wednesday. ”I know his task isn’t easy. He’s got a lot of very, very difficult members to deal with.” However, Schumer continued, being a leader means accepting a “responsibility to the American people. Real lives would be disrupted in a shutdown." The answer, Schumer said, “is right in front of Speaker McCarthy, and he knows it: bipartisanship.” That puts the onus on McCarthy to reach out to Democrats.

For Democrats, what makes this a different situation than the debt limit is that the stakes aren’t nearly as high with a shutdown as with debt default. As damaging as a shutdown will be, it almost surely won’t be catastrophic. The other consideration is that Republicans will likely be blamed for it, as they were in 1995-96, in 2013, and in 2018. There’s no way around that, since the hard-liners have been cheerleading for a shutdown for weeks.

Isolating McCarthy is the only way to get him—or a critical mass of Republicans who don’t want to take the blame for the fiasco—to come around to working with them.


McCarthy is screwing over swing-district Republicans

Freedom Caucus: ‘We don't fear the government shutdown’

Senate Republicans now saying it's up to McCarthy to avoid a shutdown

House Republican extremists look like they want a government shutdown

We are in September now, which means the government-shutdown stopwatch is ticking. This congressional calendar is even more fraught than usual because there’s just so much that Congress needs to do—and yet, House Republican extremists remain intent on creating chaos. Making matters worse, the House remains on vacation this week, and has scheduled only 12 legislative days before the fiscal year ends and government funding expires on Oct. 1.

Government funding isn’t the only thing that’s supposed to be accomplished in the next three weeks. The end of September is also the deadline for the high-stakes farm bill and a reauthorization bill—the legislation that governs how funds are supposed to be spent by agencies—for the Federal Aviation Administration. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is running out of money and needs a cash infusion to keep responding to the recent disasters in Hawaii and Florida, much less what the remainder of hurricane and wildfire season may bring.

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A few weeks ago, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy floated a possible deal with Democrats to pass a short-term funding bill to keep the government running while Congress continues to work on the regular appropriations bills. At least one hard-line Republican, Georgia’s Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, has declared she won’t vote for it unless the House first votes to begin impeaching President Joe Biden.

Rep. Chip Roy of Texas is joining in, not necessarily on impeaching Biden as a condition of funding the government, but more so in opposition to having a functioning government. On Monday, Texas Sen. John Cornyn tweeted about the impending shutdown, obliquely chastising the House Republicans for being “universes” apart from Senate Republicans on funding government. Roy quickly responded by saying that Republicans shouldn’t fund “the things they campaign against - and then just shrug… border… DOJ weaponization… DOD wokeness… IRS abuse… COVID tyranny.”

That’s left McCarthy weakly arguing that if they shut down the government, then they won’t be able to keep investigating Biden. “If we shut down, all of government shuts down — investigation and everything else. It hurts the American public,” he said.

The White House has asked for a short-term continuing resolution, which is the only viable solution at this point to keep the government open. The Senate—Democrats and many Republicans—are on board. So now it all boils down to whether McCarthy will finally buck Republican extremists and work with Democrats on a stopgap bill to extend current levels of funding and likely add additional funding for disaster relief and Ukraine support.

The far-right justices on Wisconsin's Supreme Court just can't handle the fact that liberals now have the majority for the first time in 15 years, so they're in the throes of an ongoing meltdown—and their tears are delicious. On this week's episode of "The Downballot," co-hosts David Nir and David Beard drink up all the schadenfreude they can handle as they puncture conservative claims that their progressive colleagues are "partisan hacks" (try looking in the mirror) or are breaking the law (try reading the state constitution). Elections do indeed have consequences!