Leaders gang up on Speaker Johnson at ‘intense’ White House meeting

Three of Congress’s top four leaders had a loud and unified message for Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) when they met with him at the White House on Tuesday: Ignore the pressure from conservative critics and avoid a government shutdown on Friday.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) emerged from the meeting, which participants described as “intense” and “passionate,” feeling somewhat reassured that Johnson heard their pleas.

“It was a productive and intense meeting,” Schumer said outside the White House. “We made it so clear that we can’t have the shutdown because it hurts so many people in so many different ways.”

Schumer said “the Speaker did not reject” the warning and “said he wants to avoid a government shutdown.”

Jeffries said after the meeting that the atmosphere was “intense” as leaders in the room, which included President Biden and Vice President Harris, emphasized “the need to avoid a government shutdown and to fund the government so we can address the needs of the American public.”

He said negotiators are making “real progress” on the appropriations bills for federal departments and agencies that will see their funding lapse after March 1 without congressional action. Those bills include funding for military construction and the departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Energy, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we can do what is necessary in the next day or so to close down these bills and avoid a government shutdown,” he said.

But he also warned that Congress may have to pass another stopgap spending measure to give negotiators more time to reach a deal to fund the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and other agencies that will see their funding lapse after a second March 8 deadline.

A Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss internal strategy for avoiding a government shutdown said the objective of the White House meeting was to pile pressure on Johnson.

“When you can demonstrate it’s kind of three against one, you can kind of pressure or influence someone, and I hope that’s what he senses,” the senator said.

“This is a bipartisan effort to ensure that we’re doing the right thing and keeping the government open, and it’s okay for him to have a bipartisan vote” to pass funding legislation to avoid a shutdown, the senator added.

The other leaders in the room also presented a unified front to Johnson on the need to pass a Senate-approved foreign aid package that includes $60 billion for Ukraine.

McConnell was the first person in the meeting to lay out the reasons to Johnson for not waiting longer to pass military aid for Ukraine, which faces losing ground to Russia because of dwindling supplies.

Speaking to reporters afterward, McConnell said he hoped Johnson would bring the foreign aid package up for a vote.

“What I hope is that the House would take up the Senate bill and let the House work its way,” he said. “If they change it and send it back here, we have further delay. Not only do we not want to shut the government down, we don’t want the Russians to win in Ukraine.

“And so we have a time problem here. And the best way to move quickly and to get the bill to the president would be for the House to take up the Senate bill and pass it,” he added.

The Republican senator conceded that Johnson could face a motion to vacate the Speaker’s chair if he angers House conservatives but warned there’s no chance he can pass legislation to keep the government funded without Democratic votes.

A Senate Republican aide warned a government shutdown would be “dumb on policy and political grounds” and acknowledged that GOP senators aren’t sure how Johnson will react to pressure from House conservatives who are pushing to add policy riders that are a non-starter with Democrats, who control the Senate and White House.

The aide compared Johnson to a pendulum swinging from one position to another on how to handle the government funding bills.

Johnson told reporters after the White House meeting that he is “very optimistic” about avoiding a shutdown.

“We have been working in good faith around the clock every single day for months and weeks, and over the last several days, quite literally around the clock to get that job done. We’re very optimistic,” he said. “We believe that we can get to agreement on these issues and prevent a government shutdown, that’s our first responsibility.”

While Johnson told fellow congressional leaders at the White House that he wants to avoid a shutdown and has passed two previous stopgap funding bills with help from Democrats, he has yet to show he’s willing to get into a battle with members of the House Freedom Caucus that could wind up costing him his leadership job.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said on the Senate floor Tuesday that the policy riders Freedom Caucus conservatives are trying to add to the spending bills are threatening to derail the legislation before the March 1 and March 8 deadlines.

“The biggest obstacle right now has been Republican poison pills that were never truly on the table. They were always going to be non-starters,” she said.

“But we have made really good progress on the first few bills, and we can get them done if extreme demands are pushed aside. We cannot let a few far-right extremists derail the basic functioning of government,” she added.

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Senate Democrats and Republicans — as well as House Democrats — have become increasingly concerned about Johnson’s ability to avoid a shutdown in light of how much difficulty he’s faced passing legislation this and last year.

The low point for the Speaker came earlier this month when he miscalculated the vote count for two articles of impeachment against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, which initially failed by a vote of 214 to 216 after three Republicans opposed the measure.

Then right after that failure, Johnson couldn’t get the votes to pass an $18 billion Israel aid bill, which he tried to advance with a maneuver that allowed him to get around opposition to the bill in his own conference but required two-thirds support.

The Speaker was also forced to pull several bills off the House floor last year when it became clear he couldn’t muster enough votes in the GOP conference to overcome a procedural hurdle.

McConnell warned House Republicans this week that a government shutdown would only hurt their party politically.

“Shutting down the government is harmful to the country. And it never produces positive outcomes — on policy or politics,” he declared on the Senate floor Monday.

He argued that “a shutdown this week is entirely avoidable.”

After meeting with Johnson at the White House, McConnell expressed cautious optimism a shutdown would be avoided this week.

“I think it’s pretty safe to say we all agree we need to avoid a government shutdown. The Speaker was optimistic that they’ll be able to move forward first with the four bills,” McConnell said.

“Under no circumstance does anybody want to shut the government down, so I think we can stop that drama right here before it emerges. We’re simply not going to do that,” he insisted.

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