In His First Big Showdown, an Unyielding Conservative Yields

Just weeks into his new job, Speaker Mike Johnson has already learned a valuable, if painful, lesson: Being an uncompromising conservative hard-liner is much easier from the backbenches of the House than it is from the leadership suites.

The stopgap spending bill he pushed through the House on Tuesday with overwhelming support from Democrats over the objections of a solid bloc of Republicans was a near-exact replica of the funding package he had opposed six weeks ago, when he was still an obscure lawmaker from Louisiana.

But as speaker, Mr. Johnson was forced to bow to the political reality that spending proposals designed to appease the far right cannot become law in a divided government. In doing so, he exhibited a pragmatic side that surprised Democrats and frustrated allies on the right who just days ago were exultant at his sudden rise.

Mr. Johnson made the calculation that House Republicans, divided and known more for acrimony than accomplishment these days, could not afford to be held responsible for a crippling pre-Thanksgiving government shutdown.

So he went hat in hand to Democrats to save Republicans from themselves yet again — and Democrats delivered. That same scenario cost Representative Kevin McCarthy of California the speakership last month. But Mr. Johnson won’t face a challenge at this point, with Republicans cutting him some slack since he was new in the role. They say Mr. Johnson is not Mr. McCarthy. Not yet, anyway.

“He’s got one thing unique,” said Representative Ralph Norman of South Carolina, one of 93 Republicans who broke with the speaker over the spending deal but who supports him nonetheless. “We trust what he says.”

Despite his compromise maneuvering to avoid a shutdown, Mr. Johnson has another advantage over Mr. McCarthy — the far right sees Mr. Johnson much more as one of their own compared with Mr. McCarthy, a reputation that the Louisianian sought to reinforce before Tuesday’s vote.

Mr. Johnson sought to emphasize that the stopgap bill was different in one significant respect from the one that ended Representative Kevin McCarthy’s speakership.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

Asked why he was having trouble winning backing for the bill from archconservative Republicans, Mr. Johnson retorted: “I’m one of the archconservatives, OK?”

Still, there was no sugarcoating the fact that the stopgap continuing resolution headed for quick approval in the Senate as early as Thursday was a far cry from what those on the far right would have written.

They would have preferred one filled with steep budget cuts and right-wing policy provisions that would drive Democrats mad and cause a shutdown some of them were eager to instigate. Instead, it was essentially a “clean” resolution temporarily maintaining funding at levels set in 2022 when the Democratic triumvirate of Speaker Nancy Pelosi; the majority leader, Chuck Schumer; and President Biden was in charge.

It was a lot for House Republicans to swallow.

“That is the $1.7 trillion omnibus bill that Republicans roundly opposed last year,” Representative Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, said on Fox Business Network. “It ain’t a good start.”

Mr. Johnson acknowledged the dissatisfaction but said he wasn’t willing to risk a shutdown while he was still getting his feet under him and finding his way around the speaker’s Capitol office suite.

“I’ve been at the job less than three weeks, right?” he said. “I can’t turn an aircraft carrier overnight.”

The speaker sought to emphasize that the stopgap bill was different in one significant respect from the one that ended Mr. McCarthy’s speakership: It staggered the deadlines for funding government agencies, with some spending expiring on Jan. 19 and the rest on Feb. 2.

Mr. Johnson said that approach would avoid the hated holiday pileup of spending bills that has led to past approval of giant catchall legislation funding the entire federal government with little review. Now the House and Senate would have time to finish their spending bills, he argued.

“This was a very important first step to get us to the next stage so that we can change how Washington works,” Mr. Johnson declared.

But Mr. Johnson’s innovation was seen by others on both sides of the aisle mainly as gimmicky window dressing for a temporary spending plan that gave Democrats what they wanted and left conservatives shaking their heads.

Top Democrats still trying to get a handle on the new speaker said they were encouraged by Mr. Johnson’s bipartisan approach, particularly after his first legislative move was to tie $14.3 billion in aid to Israel that most of Congress wants to I.R.S. cuts that Democrats despise. Democrats had braced for more partisan maneuvering, but instead found Mr. Johnson amenable to a compromise, though with a convoluted structure they considered unnecessary.

Mr. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said he was “heartened, very cautiously” that Mr. Johnson had passed a temporary spending measure “that precisely omits the sort of hard-right cuts that would have been nonstarters with Democrats.” He said he had consulted with the speaker on how to structure what Mr. Schumer referred to as the “goofy” staggered bill to lessen Democratic resistance.

The interim bill is hardly the end of Mr. Johnson’s spending challenge. He pledged that he would not advance another temporary measure, which means that House Republicans now must pass a series of spending bills that have already tied them in knots, and then reach a compromise with the Senate and White House by early next year.

Not an easy task, but one Mr. Johnson said he was determined to see through.

“I’m done with short-term C.R.s,” he said, using the shorthand for a continuing resolution to keep government funding flowing. “We’re resolved.”

But if he falters in the days ahead on spending, assistance to Ukraine and Israel, or border security provisions demanded by Republicans, Mr. Johnson may find the initial patience shown by some on the far right to be wearing thin.

“This better not be the model of the approach,” Mr. Roy said of Tuesday’s measure. “Or there will be trouble in so-called paradise.”

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