House conservatives feel frustrated and sidelined in funding fight

House conservatives are finding themselves increasingly sidelined and frustrated as Congress barrels toward a bipartisan deal to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year without the steep cuts the far right has demanded.

Hard-liners so far have had enough leverage to prevent a long-term budget agreement from being struck, partly because any one of them could launch a vote to remove Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) — sworn into power less than five months ago — if they’re unhappy with the outcome.

Yet Johnson has dismissed that threat, joining the other top congressional leaders this week in endorsing a bipartisan deal to fund the various agencies at higher levels through September. And despite an outcry from the right, no one is sticking a neck out to challenge the Speaker’s authority by floating the motion to vacate that had toppled his predecessor.

It all represents a clear sign of the right’s diminished powers over this year’s appropriations process. And that reality seems to be hitting home.

“Honestly, I think we’re gonna continue to … be loud, but at the end of the day, I think you’re gonna continue to see the same with this Congress,” said Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Pressed on what points of leverage remain for conservatives, Crane responded: “I don’t think there’s a whole lot right now, to be honest with you.”

That resignation marks something of a shift for a conservative group that’s flexed its muscles throughout Congress, leaning on allies on the House Rules Committee to shape legislation to their liking, and taking the highly unusual step of using procedural votes to block bills on the House floor to gain further leverage across numerous policy battles.

Those dynamics have forced Johnson to bring consequential, must-pass bills to the floor under suspension of the rules, a fast-track process that requires two-thirds support for passage but eliminates the need for a procedural vote. The maneuver, which Johnson has utilized numerous times in his nascent Speakership — including for this week’s spending vote — effectively precludes the hard-liners from blocking the process, leaving them powerless as bipartisan bills sail through.

That’s likely the process that will accompany the coming votes on 2024 funding. And many conservatives aren’t taking it well.

“Watching House Republicans is like watching a football team whose best play is the punt and the block,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said on the House floor after Johnson endorsed the budget deal. “Last I checked, the Republicans actually have a majority in the House but you wouldn’t know it if you looked at our checkbook.”

Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), head of the Freedom Caucus, went a step further, warning of a political backlash if Republicans promise certain things to voters but don’t go to the mats for them in negotiations with Democrats.

“At some point, cutting spending and securing the border needs to be more than just campaign rhetoric,” said Good, who has urged Johnson to shift gears and pursue a long-term stopgap bill to keep spending at current 2023 levels through September.

But other, more senior Republicans say the epiphany from the hardliners merely represents their acceptance of the political truths that come with governing a small House GOP majority in a divided Washington, which have been apparent all Congress.

“This is House Republicans coming to terms with reality,” Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) said hours before the House voted on a short-term stopgap.

McHenry, the chair of the Financial Services Committee, lauded Johnson — whom he has been critical of in recent weeks — for moving forward with the bipartisan spending deal despite the noise from conservatives.

“He is making the inevitable decision that was clear in September, it was clear in November, December, it’s been clear for months that this is the outcome,” McHenry said. “To get on with it is the best thing.”

Twenty-eight members of the Freedom Caucus sent a warning shot to Johnson in a letter last month, requesting an update on the appropriations process, re-upping their demands for a number of controversial policy riders — which have been soundly rejected by Democrats — and warning that without those additions, he should not count on widespread GOP support to help pass spending bills.

A spokesperson for the Speaker’s office responded in a statement that Johnson, since January, “has held regular meetings with Members, including Appropriators and HFC Members, on the status of FY24 appropriations process.”

But during a GOP conference call last week, he made it clear that many — if not all — of the items on the right-flank’s wish list would be left on the cutting room floor.

“If you’re expecting a lot of home runs and grand slams here, I admit you’ll be disappointed,” Johnson said on the call, according to a partial transcript obtained by The Hill. “But we will be able to secure a number of policy victories, both in bill text and report language, or other provisions and cuts that severely undermine the Administration’s programs and objectives.”

“These bills will be littered with singles and doubles that we should be proud of, especially in our small majority,” he added.

While the GOP bomb throwers are coming to terms with their political predicament — and admitting their arsenals to enact change are nearly empty — they do have one powerful tool left at their disposal: forcing a vote to oust Johnson.

Conservatives could still file a motion to vacate the Speakership — the mechanism that conservatives used to oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) after he cut a spending deal with Democrats — which plunged the GOP conference into weeks of chaos and brought legislative business in the chamber to a screeching halt.

A single lawmaker can force a vote on ousting Johnson, a concession McCarthy made to his right flank during last year’s Speaker’s race.

But conservatives say they are not ready to trigger the nuclear option against Johnson — at least not at the current juncture — even as they find themselves at the end of the appropriations with no other arrows in their quiver.

“Nobody’s there yet,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) said Friday.

“I don’t think that there’s a strong consideration for that at this point,” Crane echoed.

Crane, a first-term firebrand, did pin responsibility on Johnson but also recognized the untenable position he finds himself in.

“I think it’s a reflection of, you know, his leadership, which I’ve been critical of,” he added of Johnson when asked about his criticism of the GOP conference. “While also at the same time recognizing that, you know, he is in a tight spot.”

“But I think everybody, you know, in my group would like to see him lead in a more conservative manner. He knows that, we voice that every way possible we can to him,” he continued. “So like I said, at the end of the day there’s not a whole lot more we can do about it.”

Asked about consequences for Johnson on Thursday, conservative Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) told reporters “I’m not gonna talk about that,” later saying the Speaker is “dealing with a tough … hand.”

“I like Mike, I think he’s trying to do the best he can in this environment and try to move forward with it. I just disagree with where he’s landing,” he added. “And so I … keep pushing and let this all play out.”

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