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The Functional Dysfunctional Congress

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The Functional Dysfunctional Congress

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The congressional theater around federal spending fights that have repeatedly brought the government to the brink of a disastrous shutdown over the past six months, only to be resolved just in the nick of time to avoid one, has become very predictable.

For days before a Friday midnight deadline, there is no official word of a compromise between Republicans and Democrats that will avert the crackup. But behind the scenes, members of the appropriations committees in both parties are hammering out complex deals among themselves.

Speaker Mike Johnson hems and haws publicly — and even in private — about whether he is willing to agree to the emerging compromise, but ultimately insists that Republicans must avoid shutting down the government and claims they got some wins despite failing to secure the spending cuts and policy mandates they wanted. He puts the legislation on the floor using a maneuver that effectively deprives hard-right Republican rebels of the means to block it. The archconservatives breathe fire and condemn it, but the bill passes easily, with far more Democratic than Republican support.

Mr. Johnson keeps his job anyway. The Senate sends the measure to President Biden, who quickly signs it.

Welcome to functional dysfunction, an emerging form of minimalist coalition government that has taken hold on Capitol Hill in a divided Congress where the House majority is barely in control. It’s a dynamic that is keeping the government’s lights on — but doing little else so far.

“We have found a way,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma and a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. “It is not a pretty sight, but it is working.”

As Congress finally closes in on completing its basic job of funding the government, albeit six months late, the outcome of the latest spending fight illustrates what happens when an extreme bloc of the House majority — in this case far-right Republicans — digs in and refuses to compromise, forcing their colleagues into the arms of the minority. The legislation has to be shaped more to the liking of the minority — now the Democrats — and the archconservatives lose out entirely.

If there is a “uniparty,” as members of the far right have long contended, they have helped to empower it.

“We’ve said all along that we’re either going to lock arms and do this together or you are going to force us to have to water these things down, make them more expensive and accept things that we would prefer not to accept in order to be able to move something across the finish line,” Representative Steve Womack, Republican of Arkansas and another senior appropriator, said in explaining the dynamic with the far right.

The failure to bend the spending curve significantly more in their direction has left ultraconservatives in the House frustrated and flailing. They attack the spending bills as Washington business-as-usual packages that make no real attempt to exact the deep spending cuts Republicans pledged they would deliver when they took over the House last year.

“The fact of the matter is all of this is just a shell game,” said Representative Chip Roy, Republican of Texas. He was one of the few critics who took to the House floor this week to lay into the six-bill spending package that in the end passed the House in overwhelming bipartisan fashion and was headed toward lopsided Senate passage on Friday.

He and others are discovering that the vast majority of their colleagues just do not embrace the slash-and-burn shutdown tactics that those on the far right would willingly deploy in the interest of winning some deep spending reductions in an election year.

“People get comfortable with the status quo and it works for them,” Representative Andy Biggs, Republican of Arizona, said about the resistance within his own party to significantly paring back spending and disrupting the government.

With Republicans holding a razor-thin majority, the conservative refusal to go along has left Mr. Johnson little choice but to deal with Democrats if he wants to avoid a government closure — and like his doomed predecessor, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, he has made clear time and again that he does.

In the end, anti-spending conservatives say there is little more they can do if most House Republicans are unwilling to entertain another coup against the speaker after the chaos spurred by Mr. McCarthy’s ouster last year.

“We tried structural change and that didn’t work,” said Representative Ken Buck, Republican of Colorado. “We did a personnel change and that hasn’t worked. What’s left at this point — another personnel change? Nobody seems to want to do that.”

Mr. Cole said if the right wing truly wanted to cut the deficit, it should focus less on the annual spending bills and more on giant programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

“If you’re really worried about the deficit, then I want to see your entitlement reform plan,” he said. “You know, tell me what you’re going to do.”

But the political danger inherent in merely mentioning those programs has left even the most conservative members of Congress reluctant to raise them. Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, took a beating when he broached the subject a few years ago in a proposed party agenda that fell flat.

The spending situation has worked to the advantage of Democrats. Though the six spending measures on track for enactment on Friday were not written the way Democrats would have insisted were they in the majority, all but two House Democrats supported them, along with 132 Republicans. Eighty-three Republicans voted no.

Democrats said they were able to use their influence to keep a bevy of provisions sought by the far right out of the legislation. Republicans knew they had to strip most of them in order to win the Democratic votes necessary to pass the legislation, since the conservatives refused to vote for the spending bills under any circumstance.

“Once again, Democrats protected the American people and delivered the overwhelming majority of votes necessary to get things done,” Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democratic leader, said after the House vote on Wednesday.

The coalition remains fragile and is so far extending mainly to the spending bills. Mr. Johnson is relying on substantial Democratic backing to use a procedural shortcut to bring the bills to the floor and circumvent a procedural blockade by his own party. But the speaker has so far refused to use the same procedure to move ahead with a Senate-passed bill containing more than $60 billion in security aid to Ukraine even though both Republicans and Democrats say majority support exists for it as well.

And the next tranche of six spending bills taking shape could be much more difficult to squeeze through than the first six. The package will contain some of the most contentious spending measures including money for the agencies that oversee the border as well as health and labor programs — areas where Democrats and Republicans have divided sharply in the past. Top lawmakers say it may be difficult to produce the same kind of overwhelming approval.

Still, those who have backed the spending bills over the fervent but so far ineffectual opposition from the far right say they are satisfied with what has transpired, with both parties getting some wins and taking some losses while keeping the government open.

“Both sides can claim some victories in this thing,” Mr. Womack said of the legislation passed this week. “And, gosh, isn’t that the way this is supposed to work?”

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