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Washington Wednesday: Icebergs ahead

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WORLD Radio - Washington Wednesday: Icebergs ahead

Big legislative deadlines are coming up fast for House Speaker Mike Johnson and his narrow majority


House Speaker Mike Johnson at the US Capitol Associated Press/Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 3rd of January, 2024. You’re listening to The World and Everything in It and we’re glad to have you along with us today! Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. First up, Washington Wednesday.

We’re less than two weeks out from the Iowa caucuses. Donald Trump continues to lead the Republican field by an overwhelming majority, even as some states are trying to remove him from the ballot ahead of the primaries.

Last month, the Secretaries of state in Colorado and Maine declared the former president unfit to stand for election in their states. Legal challenges are pending, and Colorado has a deadline on Friday to certify the lineup of names on the ballots.

REICHARD: We’ll provide analysis of this legal strategy and pushback from Trump and other Republicans in the coming days.

But today, we’re going to focus on a story that started back in October.

PATRICK MCHENRY: The chair declares the House in recess subject to the call of the chair (slams gavel).

North Carolina Congressman Patrick McHenry, after a majority of House members voted to remove Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The Republicans who triggered the vote said McCarthy crossed a line in negotiating with the Senate and White House to pass temporary spending bills.

Republicans eventually came together to install Louisiana Congressman Mike Johnson, hoping he’d restore the normal order of Congressional business.

JOHNSON: We know that there's a lot going on in our country domestically and abroad and we are ready to get to work again to solve those problems. And we will.

BROWN: The House went on Christmas recess December 15th. But Johnson’s task list has only grown longer, and time is running short.

Joining us now to talk about it is Jim Curry. He’s an associate professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Political Science at the University of Utah.

REICHARD: Jim, good morning to you.

JIM CURRY: Good morning.

REICHARD: Well, next Tuesday, Congress comes back into session. What’s on its plate in order of urgency, would you say?

CURRY: I think the most urgent thing that Congress has on its plate is the spending bills. They kicked the can after Speaker Johnson took the oath and became the new Speaker of the House, kicking the deadline from November into January and February to fund the government and set funding levels for the coming year. But now they need to do it. And that’s going to be easier said than done with Speaker Johnson facing the same problems that Speaker McCarthy faced with a divided conference about how it would like to proceed.

REICHARD: What else in order of urgency after that?

CURRY: I’d say they have to deal with Ukraine funding, they have to deal with funding for Israel in Gaza. There’s these ongoing talks about the border crisis and what’s going to happen there, it’s I think it’s clear that the Senate may come forward with some sort of compromise measure on the border, and then there’ll be pressure on the house to deal with that. Section 702 of FISA is set to expire this spring, and so that’s a looming deadline. And then, of course, setting policy aside from it and turning to politics, Mike Johnson has to prepare his conference to run for re-election and try to maintain majority control of the House before the end of the year. And so that’s, that’s quite a to do list for a brand new speaker.

REICHARD: Well it is, I mean, that’s a tough task to get it all done in time. And part of the challenge has been getting Republicans to work together, how has he fared in trying to be the unifying voice of leadership in the House?

CURRY: I think under the circumstances he’s done okay so far. I mean, he walked into a situation where his conference was so divided, they were willing to throw out there sitting speaker, and he’s managed to not lose his job yet. And so from from that standpoint, I think he’s done okay. But you already started to see the fractures reappear, as especially once he had to kick the can on spending bills into the new year and even more so when he agreed to a bipartisan renewal of the Defense Department authorization in December, you started to see those same right wing members of his conference who were unhappy with Speaker McCarthy show their displeasure once again. And so, you know, so far, so good, but I think most of the test is still to come.

REICHARD: Let’s talk margin of error. Congressman George Santos has been removed from his seat; former Speaker Kevin McCarthy resigned. And another Republican, Bill Johnson, is also leaving.  So, Speaker Johnson went from having a roughly 5-seat majority to little or no edge depending on the issue at hand. Looking at history, any other House majorities that compare to this?

CURRY: So you have a few, most recently you have the House majorities that, in terms of being quite this narrow, you have the late 1990s, with House Republican majorities dealing with the Bill Clinton presidency, where in the last few years of the Clinton presidency, Republicans held the narrowest of majorities, and they were remarkably good at holding themselves together to try to move things forward and negotiation negotiate with the Clinton White House. But I don’t think they were quite as viscerally divided on some of the key issues as they are right now. But after that, you have to go back quite a while because it’s been most of American history has seen pretty large house majorities. In recent years. They’ve been smallish. But this is this is quite small.

REICHARD: What do you make of Johnson’s decision to move ahead with the impeachment inquiry into the family business ties of President Biden? Appropriations, border security, aid to Israel and Ukraine seem quite pressing. Do you think that’s going to help or hurt his efforts to meet legislative deadlines?

CURRY: That’s a good question. I think it may help him win some goodwill from the more conservative members of the conference, who are the ones who really, really want to pursue these impeachment proceedings. And perhaps that’s why he made the choice he did to formally open it up and give them sort of that concession so that maybe they’ll go along a bit more on some of the other things that he knows he’ll have to do in a less conservative manner. But, you know, besides that, I don’t think it’ll disrupt legislative business as much because you know, a lot of the impeachment inquiry stuff is going to happen in committee and so won’t take up any extra time on the floor unless they get to the later stages of an impeachment.

REICHARD: You know, The White House and Senate haven’t taken House appropriations bills seriously up till now because they include spending cuts. When it comes down to the wire, do you think Johnson will negotiate or play hard ball?

CURRY: I think he’s going to have to negotiate at some point. I mean, the reality is things can only pass a closely divided Senate, such as that we have, with broad bipartisan support, and so passing really conservative House spending cut bills that only conservatives like and that pass only with Republican votes, just is never going to possibly go anywhere in the Senate, which means at some point he’s going to have to negotiate. And he seemed to show that he knows that, the way that he negotiated and accepted a bipartisan compromise on the defense reauthorization. And so I think at the end of the day, he knows he’s going to have to. The question is, can he keep his right flank happy enough to go along with that sort of agreement?

REICHARD: Suppose the government gets funded and Speaker Johnson keeps his job. Do you see this as a realistic scenario and if so, what’s required to make that happen?

CURRY: It’s possible I mean, the whole Kevin McCarthy experience shows that it’s, it’s, it’s also possible he can cut the deal and lose the speakership. But I think it’s possible. And in part, because I don’t know how many times the right wing in the party wants to go through kicking a speaker out and going through the lengthy process of trying to find another consensus candidate. I mean, at what point do you just run out of candidates that you can actually get behind? So I think it’s possible, but he’s going to have to do something, to placate the right wing of the party. He’s going to have to give them some kind of concessions or some kind of promises, or something for them to, maybe not support any of the bipartisan compromises that they’re going to have to bring forward, but at least not blow up the House of Representatives over it.

REICHARD: Final question: Any aspect of this story that you think warrants more attention as Congress gets back to work next week?

CURRY: I think what’s going to happen with the border and Ukraine and Israel is going to be really interesting over the coming weeks, because you may see this bipartisan breakthrough on border policy in the Senate. And then the real question becomes, is the House Republican majority and their new speaker willing to play ball and negotiate and actually get us to something that we’ve been striving at for years, if not decades, which is some sort of bipartisan solution to a border crisis? Or are they going to, you know, hold firm and keep this an issue that they can carry forward into the 2024 election? I think that’ll be really important to watch.

REICHARD: Jim Curry is Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Political Science at the University of Utah. Thank you for joining us today, really appreciate it!

CURRY: Thank you.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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