House Republicans weakened by divisiveness

In the recent budget deal they won less than they could have had they stayed united.



March 22, 2024 - 3:23 PM

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., deserves credit for cutting a deal to fund the government despite the howling of the performance-politics faction of his right flank. Photo by Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images/Kansas Reflector

Congress looks poised to avoid a futile government shutdown and more political melodrama, which is no small miracle in narrowly divided Washington. House Speaker Mike Johnson deserves credit for cutting a deal to fund the government despite the howling of the performance-politics faction of his right flank, though Republicans would have achieved more had they stuck together.

The more than 1,000-page, $1.2 trillion bill covers the last six government appropriation areas, including Homeland Security and the State Department. Both parties are claiming victories. Republicans are touting $496 million to fund 22,000 Border Patrol agents and boosting detention beds to 41,500, up from 25,000 in the Biden Administration’s budget request. Democrats are heralding another $1 billion for child care and Head Start.

The bill’s real accomplishment is funding national defense, even if the 3% increase over 2023 is insufficient for the world’s dangers. Stopgap funding measures known as continuing resolutions wreak havoc on the U.S. military’s ability to train, exercise or start new procurement priorities. Many lawmakers wanted Mr. Johnson to pass a CR for the rest of the year in the name of fiscal discipline.

The cost would have been a weaker American military. The funding bill includes crucial priorities for U.S. preparedness, particularly bulk buys of missiles in high demand from Ukraine and the Pacific. Congress blocked the Biden Administration from retiring four Navy ships. At least the fleet will tread water, while the Chinese Communist Party continues its relentless military buildup.

The usual suspects on the right are complaining, though they might reflect on their own contributions to the current moment. Republicans in 2022 ran on restoring regular order to Congress and passing 12 separate appropriations bills. But the hard-liners insisted on spots on the Rules Committee as the price of handing Kevin McCarthy what turned out to be a temporary job as Speaker.

Now Republicans can’t move bills through the Rules Committee and are bringing them to the floor through a procedure known as suspension, which requires two-thirds to pass. Republicans have to rely on Democrats to pass anything of substance, and the result is fewer GOP policy victories. A Republican majority that held together would have had more leverage to pick and win policy fights — say, overturning President Biden’s destructive ban on liquefied natural gas export projects.

But at least Republicans have avoided yet another government shutdown that achieves nothing except self-inflicted damage. That was hardly a sure bet, as Speaker Johnson has appeared in recent weeks uneasy on how to placate his party’s factions. Moving forward on a bill is a show of leadership that may earn more respect from his backbenchers.

Congress can now move on to other business, and the first priority should be U.S. aid to Ukraine and Israel. Congress has wasted half the fiscal year on government funding — and in the end is passing largely what Mr. McCarthy negotiated a year ago. Such are the realities of divided government, and a House GOP majority with too many Members whose only cause is themselves.