House Republicans don't want a government shutdown, but there's still no plan

U.S. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) in Washington, DC. on Nov. 7, 2023. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — After three weeks of chaos and paralysis over the speaker fight, House Republicans say there’s no appetite in their conference for lurching into another crisis: a government shutdown.

But with the deadline just nine days away, Congress still hasn’t come up with a plan to keep the lights on in Washington. Though many lawmakers are upbeat about averting a shutdown, the mood runs counter to their lack of progress and the uncertainty of a new House speaker who is still finding his feet.

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., hasn’t announced a plan after walking Republicans through several options, and he said the details and next steps of a short-term funding bill remain up in the air.

“I’m not going to comment on it tonight,” he told NBC News on Tuesday. “All the work is still going.”

House Republicans are all over the map when it comes to how a short-term stopgap bill, known as a continuing resolution, or CR, should be structured. Most of them, however, agree that shutting the government down on Nov. 17 would be a bad idea and would cause more internal GOP strife. Further, a shutdown would be a huge distraction as the party tries to pass its remaining funding bills to set up a negotiation with the Senate on longer-term spending.

“There’s no appetite for a shutdown,” said Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., who is close to leadership and serves on both the Appropriations and Budget committees.

On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., declined Tuesday to reveal his preferences on a funding bill, how long it should last or when it might come to a vote.

“We hope we can get bipartisan agreement to move forward as quickly as possible,” he told reporters. “We’d like to get a CR done as quickly as possible. That’s what we think.”

Republicans are trying to coordinate across the chambers. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Senate GOP appropriator, was set to meet Wednesday with Johnson to discuss the path forward on government funding, said two sources with knowledge of the plan.

Then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was ousted from power just days after he teamed with Democrats on a “clean” stopgap measure to avert the last shutdown threat on Sept. 30. It sparked a nasty civil war among House Republicans as they struggled for 22 days to elect McCarthy’s successor — a battle that froze the chamber and prevented the party from moving their spending bills.

“I think we have to give ourselves time to pass our appropriations bills. And we have to be realistic because we lost time during the speaker’s race," Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., another appropriator, said. "And in my opinion, we got to back the speaker. Ultimately, he will make the call based on our input."

“I don’t think anyone really wants a shutdown,” he added.

First-term Rep. John James, R-Mich., who represents a competitive district, didn’t express a preference on a stopgap bill, but said: “We have all the tools necessary to avert a shutdown. We’re going to do everything we can to do that.”

There is no shortage of ideas on how to structure the CR.

In a closed-door meeting this week, Johnson laid out three potential options for averting a shutdown, attendees said: A “two-step” process, favored by conservatives, where a handful of the spending bills would go on a CR through Dec. 7, and the others on a second CR through Jan. 19; a relatively “clean” CR through January to give the House more time to finish passing their spending bills; and Option 3, what leaders described as getting “jammed by Senate, negotiate best we can get.”

“I think we can’t get too cute, and you want to make it as simple as possible,” Bilirakis said of the two-step CR idea.

Some conservatives say they won't back a clean funding bill without conservative priorities, while other lawmakers are trying to attach aid for Israel or Ukraine to any CR that moves.

“I’m not interested right now personally in a clean CR. I want to see something attached to it," Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, suggesting that he wants to see provisions related to the border, but that those being floated in the Senate are insufficient.

Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., said he would like to see a short-term bill that lowers spending from current levels to the caps established in a two-year budget deal in May.

“Look, my personal preference is, I guess, less important than what can get 218 votes,” he said. “So I’m flexible in terms of where to get to avoid a shutdown, while at the same time getting us to the place that maximizes our leverage with the Senate.”

Like several of his ultraconservative Freedom Caucus colleagues, Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., is backing the two-step approach, which Johnson has referred to as a “laddered CR.”

“I like the ladder approach. I want to do our best to pass as many appropriations bills as we can this fiscal year,” Buck said.

But even some conservatives who support it acknowledge the idea has lost momentum. Talk of a laddered CR "has died down," said Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn.

And Budget Chairman Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, called the idea "politically DOA," arguing that "Democrats will reject it out of hand."

Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., blasted the multitiered approach as one that would wreak “havoc and uncertainty” on Americans and industries.

“It’s stunning to me because if you think about conservative Republicans of the past, certainty was what they wanted — limited government and certainty,” she said. “A laddered approach makes no sense. We have to be grown-ups and pass a clean CR and then pass a full budget.”

Some lawmakers say the most plausible scenario is that Johnson puts a relatively clean CR on the floor, just before the shutdown deadline, that can pass with both Republican and Democratic votes — just as McCarthy did before his ouster. But even McCarthy's biggest detractors have said they'll give Johnson more breathing room than his predecessor and it’s unlikely any Republican would force a vote to remove him given that he was elected just two weeks ago with support from all 221 Republicans.

"We all learned a lesson from the motion to vacate. It was difficult to find a speaker, a lot of people didn't want to be speaker and we had trouble getting enough people to to support a speaker," Buck said. "So, I don't think you're gonna see a motion to vacate again in this Congress."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the next steps on a stopgap bill will be up to Schumer to decide in the upper chamber, and he'll then need to sort it out with Johnson.

“On the date issue, I assume the majority leader and the speaker will reach some kind of agreement,” McConnell said.

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