After Hamas’ surprise attack on Oct. 7, Republicans and Democrats in Congress both said they needed to act quickly to help Israel.
But five weeks after Mike Johnson (R-LA) was elected speaker, and nearly eight weeks since the attack, Congress doesn’t appear any closer to passing an aid package—for Israel or for Ukraine, the latter of which has been “weeks” away from running out of weapons for months now.
As Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) told The Daily Beast this week, Ukraine needed an aid package in October.
It’s a similar story on government funding. House Republicans said they needed to get back to work on appropriations bills immediately so they could pass spending measures and pressure Democrats into accepting lower government funding levels.
But it’s now been four weeks since the House passed an appropriations bill—and Republicans don’t actually appear to be solving any of the spending problems that have plagued them all year—with the exception of one.
On Friday, the House finally expelled Rep. George Santos (R-NY). Santos was a constant embarrassment for Republicans in Congress, and yet his removal was still a divisive issue for the House GOP that flummoxed Republican leaders. After an exhaustive Ethics investigation that culminated in a damning 55-page report on Santos’ behavior, Speaker Johnson, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA), House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN), and GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-NY) all opposed expelling Santos. Meanwhile, 105 Republicans voted for his removal.
But if that’s all the House GOP has accomplished, it’s not impressing members.
Before lawmakers broke for Thanksgiving, Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) took to the House floor to lambaste Republican leadership for failing to accomplish any meaningful conservative policy goals.
“Anybody sitting in the complex, if you want to come down to the floor and come explain to me, one meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done,” Roy said at the time.
On Thursday night, he returned to the floor to underscore that point. Roy said his fellow Republicans were frustrated that his tirade handed Democrats a quotable campaign attack.
To his Republican colleagues, he said, “have an answer.”
Without recognition of the underlying issues—namely: the unreasonable expectations that Republicans can coalesce behind a plan and then force Democrats to just accept it—Speaker Johnson and House Republicans are likely to continue spinning their legislative wheels. But it isn’t much better in the Senate, a chamber that’s been hampered by its own sets of unreasonable expectations.
The Senate is working on a sweeping supplemental package that would tie weapons for Ukraine, Israel aid, support for Taiwan, and money for enhanced border security all together. The idea is that, individually, you have priorities with varying degrees of support. But you pack them all together, and every lawmaker would be able to find a reason to justify a yes vote.
The problem is, that cuts the other way, too.
Plenty of House Republicans are adamant that these issues should be separate, and plenty of Democrats aren’t too keen on handing the GOP a win on “border security”—which they interpret as a crackdown on immigration via more border patrol agents and stricter asylum standards—simply because Republicans are reluctant to fund Ukraine.
But again, Republicans are playing hardball, and their leverage is that many in the GOP simply don’t care what happens in Ukraine.
As conservative Rep. Troy Nehls (R-TX) put it bluntly, “I’m not giving any money to Ukraine.”
One current offer from the GOP is to tie Ukraine funding to the number of border crossings each month. That doesn’t seem very palatable to Democrats. It’s one thing for Democrats to swallow some border funding to get the rest of their priorities through; it’s a much different thing to fund Ukraine on a short-term basis and directly tie the issue to a completely unrelated, fluctuating measure.
The standoff on those two issues has become a real sticking point, raising the possibility that nothing gets done, and Republicans and Democrats don’t appear very close.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) was emphatic on Wednesday that a direct relationship with border crossings was the only way to get even a temporary commitment on Ukraine.
“We will have to have something that is really tied to really reducing the number of people crossing the border, and this can’t be a small reduction. We need to reduce it the way Trump was able to reduce it,” Scott told Fox News. “The only way we’re going to get a result is if we will not give Ukraine money unless it’s completely tied on a month-to-month basis to a reduction in number of people crossing the border. That’s the only way it’s going to work, and I believe that’s where everybody’s going to be.”
That may seem like an opening offer, but Republicans are resolute that any Ukraine funding must be tied to border security.
“Does any reasonable person think that we’re going to have a vote on the House that is successful that doesn’t include border security as a part of the supplemental?” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), who is involved with the border negotiations, told The Daily Beast this week.
“It’s the only prayer of getting it done. People need to think strategically or recognize it’s really those three have to go together in tandem for us to be able to get to Israel as quickly as possible,” he continued.
The House took a first stab at passing Israel aid last month. Johnson led a vote on $14.3 billion to Israel aid that paired cuts to the Internal Revenue Service to supposedly “offset” the cost. (In reality, the Congressional Budget Office said the IRS cuts would increase the debt by $26.8 billion over the next decade.)
That Israel bill passed the House with some Democratic support but was swiftly dismissed in the Senate as an unserious proposal. And again, weeks later with no resolution, lawmakers are wondering what they’re doing—and why their leadership ever pursued an obviously doomed strategy.
Rep. Max Miller (R-OH) called the idea of tying Israel aid to IRS cuts “fucking dumb” and said it was “a slap in the face to every Jew.”
Due to Johnson’s doomed Israel gambit, House Republicans are stuck in the backseat as the Senate drives border negotiations.
“The House has no say in it,” said conservative Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX).
Crenshaw stopped short of blaming the speaker directly, saying Johnson has “a ton on his plate,” but he did say the Senate leading border talks was “frustrating for me.”
Still, most Republicans are continuing to give Johnson a pass.
The most notable example of the softer expectations is the Freedom Caucus moving on from its stubborn insistence on cutting spending below the numbers that Republican and Democratic leaders agreed on earlier this year during the debt ceiling standoff. Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry (R-PA) acknowledged that most of the House and Senate voted for those numbers, so lawmakers shouldn’t go above those spending levels.
“Let’s write the appropriations bills. Let’s get the spending bills right,” Perry said at a press conference. “Let’s set that as the number, and then when we do that, let’s start conferencing bills.”
Part of the lower standards for Johnson is that conservatives realize another replacement speaker is unlikely to be further to the right than Johnson. Another part is just the broad recognition that, with a narrow and unruly majority, compromise will be necessary.
As Nehls told The Daily Beast, “the Lord Jesus could not manage our conference.”
But Nehls also acknowledged that conservative frustration toward Johnson was brewing. “The honeymoon period has really ended, in many ways,” he said.
Roy told Politico this week that Johnson’s performance rating was “plummeting.” And Miller said Johnson “did a 180 on everything he believed in.”
Johnson’s dwindling stock among the GOP poses problems as he tries to shepherd spending bills through the House, where conservatives have insisted on passing all 12 appropriations bills individually rather than in one massive omnibus bill.
But since Johnson took office, Republican infighting over hard-right policy riders has tanked two of the remaining five bills. Members of the conference have lost confidence that Johnson can navigate his ungovernable conference, especially before a stop-gap spending bill expires next year.
“The spending bills aren’t going to go anywhere,” Crenshaw said. “They’re at an impasse.”
Nehls agreed. “I don’t know if we even get another appropriation bill passed, honestly,” he said.
The clock is ticking for the House to get its act together. Four government funding bills run out Jan. 19, 2024, and the remainder expire on Feb. 2.
The House’s prospects of avoiding an omnibus look grim. The Senate has only passed three appropriations bills in a package known as a “mini-bus.” The other nine are in limbo, as Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has not brought them to the floor.
Senior appropriator Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said earlier this week that, by not bringing spending bills to the floor, Schumer was “driving this bus straight to an omnibus.”
Asked if this dynamic sets up a shutdown, she responded with an exasperated, “yes ma’am.” Then she pointed out that the second funding government spending deadline falls on Groundhog Day.
“How appropriate,” she told The Daily Beast. “It just seems like this is this ridiculous cycle that we keep putting ourselves in.”
On top of it all, Congress is also staring down messy fights on other must-pass legislation. The National Defense Authorization Act expires at the end of the year, as does the Farm Bill and Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization. With the House slated to be in session for just seven more work days before 2024, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are bracing for a chaotic, and likely unproductive, stretch ahead.
“This is going to be an ugly Congress. It already has been and it could get even uglier,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) told The Daily Beast.