Can Speaker Of The House Mike Johnson Make A Deal? : Consider This from NPR Despite a last minute agreement to push a deadline for a shutdown, Congress and the White House have to agree on how to fund the government. So far, all they've been able to do is kick the can down the road.

And conditions for making a political deal are only getting worse. Republicans can only lose two votes. And there's skepticism all around.

Finding a way out largely depends on Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, Republican of Louisiana. But Johnson has a fractious caucus, is relatively inexperienced, and shutdowns have become the political weapon of choice.

If the House leader can't find a path to a deal, the entire country could pay the price.

For sponsor-free episodes of Consider This, sign up for Consider This+ via Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Can Speaker Of The House Mike Johnson Make A Deal?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1198910525/1234701841" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's a scene in the early '90s movie "Dave" that kind of captures the moment leaders in Congress and the White House face right now, with a budget deadline closing in. In the movie, Kevin Kline plays a presidential impersonator, Dave, who's drafted by one of the president's aides, played by Kevin Dunn. The White House wants Dave to play the president while the real president is in a coma.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAVE")

KEVIN DUNN: (As Alan Reed) Sometimes we need our friends and even our enemies to feel safe and secure. We need them to feel like they can go to bed at night knowing that President Mitchell is fully in control. We need them to feel like he's sitting right here in this chair.

SHAPIRO: As the fake president becomes more confident in his part, he calls his friend, accountant Murray Blum, played by Charles Grodin, to help him try to save a social safety net program.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAVE")

KEVIN KLINE: (As Dave Kovic) All right, I can't tell you the whole story - it's kind of a national emergency kind of thing - but you got to help me cut the budget a little.

CHARLES GRODIN: (As Murray Blum) You've got to cut the budget.

SHAPIRO: Now, obviously, a three-decade-old comedic take on the U.S. presidency is not an exact metaphor for the paralysis American politicians are experiencing today. But accountant Murray Blum does have an apt observation that can be applied to the here and now.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAVE")

GRODIN: (As Murray Blum) I'll tell you, Dave, I've been over this stuff a bunch of times. It just doesn't add up. Who does these books? I mean, if I ran my business this way, I'd be out of business.

SHAPIRO: If I ran my business this way, I'd be out of business - that line, delivered by a deadpan Charles Grodin, feels very relevant. If the White House and Congress can't come to an agreement, parts of the U.S. government could be out of business by the second week of March. This pattern has been in play almost since the movie "Dave" came out in 1993. Members of Congress, often Republicans, threaten to stop funding the government when they don't like what the president is doing. Here's what's changed - now, shutdowns are more common, politics is more vitriolic, and the speaker of the House right now has little experience and the tiniest Republican majority. CONSIDER THIS - both parties in Congress have reasons to be skeptical of Speaker Mike Johnson. But if the House leader can't find a path to a deal, the entire country could pay the price.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Wednesday, February 28.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. After all the worry and the preparation, congressional leaders have agreed on a plan to avoid a shutdown, at least for now. But there is still lots of work that has to get done before the new deadline of March 8. There are certain realities that remain. Conditions for making a political deal remain far from ideal. The Republican majority in the House is razor thin. Johnson can only lose two members of his party, and the path forward depends on Speaker Johnson. NPR congressional reporter Eric McDaniel has been following these talks. Hi there.

ERIC MCDANIEL, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: Eric, there is a deal to prevent a shutdown, but there's still lots of work to do. Walk us through it.

MCDANIEL: Yeah. And I think kind of a deal is actually a great way to put it, right? So behind the scenes, there are these 12 bills that fund the government. Congressional leaders now have a deal in principle on six of them, and they plan to vote on those by next Friday rather than this Friday. The remaining six bills will be due in late March. They still need to pass a short-term funding extension to avoid a shutdown this Friday and the actual funding bills themselves next week.

Of course, I am not a fortune teller, but I don't expect a government shutdown to come out of this. I think these will pass, is what I'm saying. I think they'll cobble the votes together and live to see another day. But look, I also don't want to miss the forest for the trees here. They were supposed to pass these full-year spending authorizations for the federal government back in September. You and I are sitting here talking, it's what, February 28. So in that way - right? - like, things aren't actually going great, even if the most catastrophic timeline doesn't look like the one we'll actually be heading for.

SHAPIRO: No, but I do appreciate you're putting a positive spin on this. Remind us of what the fiscal parameters are that Speaker Johnson has to consider here.

MCDANIEL: So right now, the U.S. government is still operating under budget choices that were made by a whole nother Congress - right? - just after the 2022 midterm elections when Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, was still in charge. The new Congress hadn't taken office. She was serving as speaker of the House. The current Congress has been extending that funding in small increments ever since. Johnson says he wants to stop these so-called stopgap measures and pass the full-year bills, but it's been impossible so far to get House Republicans and the rest of Congress on the same page about what should be in those bills. And that's kind of where we are now. And just to put a fine point on it, funding the government is a core job of Congress. It's the power of the purse. And there are some ways they haven't really done it in the way it's designed to work since 1996, 1997. And I think there are reasons now - and we can get more into this - that the problem is worse than it's ever been.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, let's get into one of those reasons. Johnson, who has not spent long as speaker of the House, has spent most of that time trying to manage the far right of his own party, who generally don't support any kind of spending deal that Democrats could agree to. How has that dynamic created this moment we're in now?

MCDANIEL: It's really important. There's no way around it. And while Johnson might be trying to manage them, he's really not tried to appease them so far, right? In fact, he's sort of gone around them. He's now pushed through two short-term funding extensions against their wishes, despite promising when he was running for speaker that he was done with short-term bills. And in this context, deferring to his far-right members would be insisting on big conservative policy writers on guns or abortion that President Biden would never sign, and maybe letting the government shutdown. And there's just no sign that he's inclined to let that happen.

SHAPIRO: So he's not insisting on those conservative priorities right now.

MCDANIEL: I mean, I suspect any conservative wins we do see in a plan will be much smaller than the hard lines - hard-liners want to see. These big ones on abortion or guns, say, are described as poison pills by Democrats, things they just can't stomach. And because Biden is in charge of the White House and Democrats control the Senate, they're not going to go through. But the issue for Johnson is that these anti-compromise folks make up somewhere between a third and a half of his majority, depending on what the exact issue is, and they have some fundamentally different incentives. Part of Johnson's job as speaker is to govern and make Republicans look electable and responsible and competent. But the anti-compromise folks represent districts that have been drawn to be so safe that compromise could doom them when they have to compete in the party primaries that are so rigorously partisan because of, you know, the way these districts are.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. So if you look at this through the eyes of those hard-liners, how are the considerations different?

MCDANIEL: Well, their job is to hold the line and excite their very engaged Republican primary voters. Remember, most of Congress is made up of these safe seats, where the party primary is the vote that matters, not the general election. There are just 20 or 30 seats that are totally competitive or designed to be competitive in the general election between the parties. These hard-liners are just responding to the incentives that they have.

SHAPIRO: Lots of House speakers have had to navigate a shutdown fight, but none of them have had as little experience as Johnson. Do you see that having an impact on his ability to deliver a deal?

MCDANIEL: Weirdly, I don't. Like, I don't think this is entirely an experience problem. I don't think his leadership skills really have much to do with the core issue here, right? He's just got a plain old problem. There's a philosophical divide that I'm not sure who can bridge it. And I also just wouldn't say, to your point, though, he's new, right? He's not a master tactician in the same way we've seen from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

SHAPIRO: Outgoing Senate Republican leader.

MCDANIEL: Yes, now.

SHAPIRO: Although in his short time as speaker, Johnson has had some pretty public failures, like the first impeachment vote against Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas failed, the Israel solo aid package didn't go through. Are those things affecting his ability to bring members along?

MCDANIEL: Right. I mean, those bills failed back to back on the same night - right? - and the second, the Mayorkas impeachment, because of Republican opposition. It wasn't a shining moment for the new speaker. And he's been a little wishy-washy when coming to final decisions. But ultimately, he was, of course, able to impeach DHS Secretary Mayorkas the following week.

SHAPIRO: You know, one of Johnson's predecessors was Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California, and she avoided a shutdown in 2022 by keeping her party together even though there were intense dissents and fractures within that party. Does Johnson have the same level of credibility as Pelosi? Can he hold his party together?

MCDANIEL: I mean, there is no question, right? Pelosi was known for her ability to keep the whole party together on tough votes. That's absolutely true. We saw it way back during the Affordable Care Act fight. But partisan Democrats also have a different base to win over, right? Intransigence isn't the same winning message all the time that it is for some of these partisan Republicans. I think the predecessor who actually has the most to teach us about this moment is Kevin McCarthy, right? He's Johnson's immediate predecessor, Republican from California, and the former speaker was the one who essentially changed the rules last January to empower this anti-compromise flank in a way that they weren't before. They can now block key procedural steps because of their positions on the Rules Committee and even fire the speaker if they disagreed, with just a couple of members. And in this tiny majority, that's a big deal. That came home to roost for McCarthy when they ousted him in the fall.

SHAPIRO: Eric, are you a betting man? Do you think they will actually get these spending deals passed?

MCDANIEL: Right. So they're planning to move these deadlines to get something passed. They've got two days to avoid a partial shutdown. It's not a lot of time, but it's not impossible. And like we've talked about, Johnson has shown time and time again now that he's willing to work with Democrats to fund the government, even if it means losing support for the legislation among his own Republicans. But I can't say it enough that even if they get an agreement passed, even for funding on the rest of the fiscal year, even for the full government, it's just not a sign that things are working well at this point, right? The U.S. is the richest country in the world, styled by leaders as the shining city on a hill. And here we are, where the whole federal government can't long-term plan because its agencies haven't known how much money they'll have. The structural problems that got us here that we've talked about, they're just not going anywhere.

SHAPIRO: NPR congressional reporter Eric McDaniel, thanks.

MCDANIEL: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: This episode was produced by Megan Lim and edited by Courtney Dorning and Kelsey Snell. Our executive producer is Sami Yenigun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.

Copyright © 2024 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.