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The far right toppled McCarthy over spending. What has it gotten them?

By Jeff Stein and Jacob Bogage Washington Post

As Congress again moved last week to approve a deal to fund the government without any spending cuts, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus, took to the House floor to castigate his own party.

“When are we going to do what we said we would do? When are we going to stand athwart and stop the reckless spending?” Roy said Wednesday, his voice rising as he jabbed his finger in the air. “I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing - one - that I can go campaign on and say we did. Anybody sitting in the complex, if you want to come down to the floor and come explain to me, one material, meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done.”

Roy’s frustration reflected the reality facing the band of House conservatives that has aggressively pushed for steep and immediate cuts to federal spending: Despite all the chaos in their own party and the turmoil they’ve brought to government, little in the federal budget has changed as a result of their actions.

Since Republicans took control of the House in January, a small group of far-right lawmakers forced the longest speaker nomination contest in modern U.S. history, paralyzed legislation on the House floor, threatened to breach the U.S. borrowing limit, then deposed Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for working with Democrats to fund the government. (Roy joined some of these actions but was not among the House Republicans who pushed out McCarthy.)

And yet for all that, the federal government is currently spending the same amount as it did before House Republicans took office.

On Friday, President Biden signed into law a bipartisan bill to avert a shutdown and continue to fund the government at existing levels until January, staving off cuts for the rest of this year. (Those existing levels were agreed to when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress last December.) Democrats are optimistic they can again thwart steep spending reductions in the new year, defying expectations that the new House majority would force Biden to cut many programs that liberals hold dear.

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has vowed to finally break that dynamic in the next spending fight, promising that the latest deal to extend government funding without cuts will prove his last after he, like McCarthy, relied on Democratic votes to keep the government open.

“I’m done with short-term CRs,” Johnson said on Wednesday, referring to the “continuing resolution” that extends funding. “We are. We’re resolved.”

“You’re right: This is very similar to the package that led to Speaker McCarthy’s ouster,” said Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), a frequent intermediary between far-right House members and Senate conservatives. “The big difference here is that Johnson came in sort of at the end of the fourth quarter with the Bengals already down by three touchdowns. I blame the quarterback who’s been in the game from the very beginning much more than the guy who came in at the end and is trying to salvage the situation.”

But Johnson’s prospects for achieving cuts are complicated by the same factors that bedeviled McCarthy.

McCarthy agreed with Biden in May on spending levels that would have amounted to a slight cut (accounting for inflation) for the current fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, in a deal that also suspended the debt ceiling. But he then tried repeatedly to pass appropriations bills through the House with GOP votes alone that would instead have cut spending by hundreds of billions of dollars, aiming to create leverage in subsequent negotiations with the White House and Democratic Senate. So far, many of those measures have failed to pass the House due to opposition from the far-right, which insisted the cuts did not go far enough - even though they would have been rejected by the Senate anyway. Other bills failed because Republicans representing districts Biden won in 2020 rejected the sharp cuts.

House conservatives have expressed optimism that Johnson would forge a better path. But now the new speaker finds himself in precisely the same bind as his predecessor: Unable to pass bills through the House to cut funding due to resistance on the right, he may instead have to pass legislation that Democrats will support to keep the government open, lest voters blame the GOP for a shutdown - ultimately leading to bills that are far more bipartisan.

“They’re not functional enough to get whatever budget cuts a slim House majority might otherwise command,” said Liam Donovan, a GOP strategist. “Unless you’re willing to do more of the lifting for what can actually become law, you don’t have any leverage - and that’s how you end up where we are.”

Since taking the speaker’s gavel, Johnson has replicated McCarthy’s failures to unify the GOP on spending bills to cut the government. His effort to advance funding cuts to the Justice Department and other agencies was defeated on the House floor amid GOP opposition. He has pulled several bills - including one on the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments and another on the Treasury Department and other agencies - because they appeared likely to go down to defeat. He has not yet pushed for votes on legislation for funding the Labor Department and Education Department.

“I think they’ve seriously painted themselves into a corner. What they’ve been doing is demanding that everyone adopt their imaginary bill that can’t pass because it has bigger cuts than everyone else’s imaginary bill that also can’t pass,” said Grover Norquist, a conservative activist at Americans for Tax Reform who typically argues for spending cuts, of the small number of far-right lawmakers that has fought GOP leadership.

Complicating matters further for the new speaker is that he has also lost some votes from House GOP moderates who fear the cuts are too extreme. That creates a seemingly impossible situation for Johnson, who will lose votes for proposing cuts that are more bigger while also losing votes for proposed cuts that are smaller.

That’s frustrated Republican counterparts in the upper chamber, who had hoped a divided Congress would slow the momentum of the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“The House has got to recognize that they’re not going to get everything that we want,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) told The Washington Post. “At the same time, we recognize that in the Senate, because in the Senate, we’re working every day on a bipartisan basis. In the House, they don’t do that very often.”

House Republicans have not entirely failed to reduce federal spending. The debt ceiling deal agreed to by McCarthy and Biden in May set caps on discretionary spending for two years. That will result in roughly $250 billion less spending over the next two years than would have otherwise been the case, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a Washington-based think tank.

“The House majority has blocked spending that would have occurred if Democrats had continued to hold the trifecta” of the House, Senate and White House, said Brian Riedl, a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute, a center-right think tank. “Gridlock is certainly an accomplishment relative to the last two years.”

Marc Goldwein, senior vice president at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, also said the debt ceiling deal achieved meaningful spending reductions: “There’s only been one piece of fiscal legislation, and it achieved significant deficit and spending reductions. Keeping funding flat is a cut.”

And yet that legislation was agreed to last spring - before conservatives toppled McCarthy for not achieving deeper spending cuts. Whether that will change is a key concern for Johnson, who is already beginning to run out of time before the 2024 election chooses the next House.

“What was achieved, besides three months of mayhem?” said Stephen Moore, a conservative policy analyst. “Nobody wants to cut the budget more than I do. But you have to be a political realist.”