Jan 10, 2024

Republicans and Democrats strike a deal.

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA). Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA). Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Plus, a question about Trump's immunity.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

Republicans and Democrats cut a deal on spending. Plus, a reader asks about Trump's immunity argument.


Yesterday, I (and I say "I", not "we", because I did it without running it past my editors) fat-thumbed the statistics from our reader survey. I said that "roughly 41% self-identified as liberal or left of center, 31% self-identified conservative or right of center, and 18% self-identified as center or independent." Actually, 28% identified as center or independent, not 18%. The number was accurately shown in our visual, but I just wanted to make note of the typo.

Quick hits.

  1. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was hospitalized on New Year's Day after complications from a surgery to treat prostate cancer. He did not disclose to the White House or Congress his cancer diagnosis or the hospitalization, which has led to calls for his resignation (The cover-up). Separately, U.S. and U.K. naval forces repelled an attack by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels on Red Sea shipping. (The defense
  2. The final GOP primary debate before the Iowa caucus is being held tonight at 9 pm ET on CNN. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley are participating. Donald Trump has again opted to skip the debate. (The debate
  3. The U.S. Labor Department issued a final rule that could force companies to treat some workers as employees rather than independent contractors. The rule is expected to face legal challenges. (The rules
  4. Last year was earth’s hottest year in 173 years of recorded measurements, according to scientists from the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service. (The record
  5. Rep. Greg Pence (R-IN), the brother of former Vice President Mike Pence, announced he is retiring at the end of his term. (The decision)

Today's topic.

The new spending deal. On Sunday, top Democrats and Republicans in Congress said they had come to an agreement on a $1.65 trillion spending deal. Now, lawmakers will attempt to pass appropriations within the limits specified by the deal. Otherwise, Congress will need to once again push through a short-term spending bill, also known as a continuing resolution (CR), to keep the government from shutting down.

The agreement is the first major deal new House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has made with Democrats since taking over the role. Over the past year, the House and Senate have struggled to pass the 12 annual appropriations bills required to fund the government. In the spring, President Biden and then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy reached a nearly identical deal for spending in fiscal year 2024, and also agreed to raise the borrowing limit to keep the government open. That agreement eventually led to McCarthy being ousted as Speaker by a group of conservative Republicans who opposed raising the debt limit without reducing spending.

The new agreement includes $773 billion for non-defense discretionary spending and $886 billion for defense spending. As part of the deal, Congress will move $10 billion in IRS funding cuts scheduled for fiscal year 2025 into fiscal year 2024 and rescind $6.1 billion in Covid-relief funds. Republicans involved in the negotiations touted those cuts, which totaled $16 billion in savings. Democrats, meanwhile, celebrated the protection of veterans benefits and nutritional assistance, as well as maintaining year-over-year non-defense spending (they decrease by less than 1%, while military programs increase by 3%).

Several Republicans expressed frustration with the deal, including the House Freedom Caucus, which issued a critical statement on X.

"It’s even worse than we thought," they said. "Don’t believe the spin. Once you break through typical Washington math, the true total programmatic spending level is $1.658 trillion — not $1.59 trillion. This is total failure."

Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) said colleagues “are really frustrated” with Johnson and are having conversations about what to do going forward, which some interpreted as a threat that the House Freedom Caucus may try to oust him as they did McCarthy.

In November, Congress passed a novel "laddered" temporary funding bill that split the 12 appropriations bills into two groups with two different deadlines. The first deadline, January 19, is for agencies covered by agriculture, energy and water, military construction and veterans affairs, and transportation and housing appropriations bills. The other eight appropriations bills were extended until February 2. 

Now, Speaker Johnson — who had previously vowed not to pass another temporary funding bill — is hoping to avoid a government shutdown while Congress figures out how to bring appropriations under the top-line figure before those deadlines.

"We got the pedal to the metal on the appropriations process," he told Punchbowl News. "The appropriators are all working in earnest. The staffs are — they are overworked — everybody is doing their best to meet the deadlines."

Today, we're going to break down some commentary about this deal from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • The left has few objections to the budget agreement itself, focusing instead on how the deal is nearly identical to the one that McCarthy struck. 
  • Some say House Republicans have learned nothing from their chaotic ouster of McCarthy and seem prepared to make the same mistake with Johnson. 
  • Others commend Johnson for his willingness to negotiate with Democrats despite knowing the blowback he’d get from his party. 

In The American Prospect, David Dayen said Johnson is the “same as the old boss.”

“Republicans could have made Steve Bannon or Tucker Carlson or a picket sign with the words ‘No New Taxes’ on it House Speaker, and any of them would have ended up putting out the same statement that Mike Johnson did about a budget deal reached over the weekend. There is no conservative hypnotist who can lull Democrats who control the Senate and the White House into agreeing to all of their hyper-partisan demands,” Dayen wrote. “Johnson’s tenure was always going to result in the latest in a series of sad Dear Colleague letters,” which exaggerate “the conservative slant of the bill almost beyond recognition.”

“Conservative rage over this is likely to manifest in at least a partial government shutdown. What most of the reporting on this budget deal has missed is that Republicans had moved on a week ago from a showdown over federal spending targets to a showdown over immigration. Unless there’s been a change of heart, the House GOP caucus is united on demanding far-right border policies in exchange for passing a government funding bill. As that remains unacceptable to Democrats, we’re likely to see funding run out beginning on January 19, regardless of this agreement.”

In MSNBC, Hayes Brown wrote “House Republicans are right back where they started on spending.”

“There is no substantive difference between [the Biden-McCarthy deal and] the agreement made between Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., despite Johnson’s attempts to say otherwise,” Brown said. “Even the way that the money is divided between military and nonmilitary spending is the same as before: $886 billion for the former and $704 billion for the latter… That there was any real dispute about the top-line number says more about the internal dynamics of the House Republican caucus than anything else.”

“It’s unclear that the House GOP has learned anything from spending the last year punching itself in the face. That they’ve managed to get Democrats to agree to a spending freeze that with inflation actually cuts total spending is a win that they should have been enjoying since last May. Instead, they find themselves right back in the exact same place, much worse for the wear and heavily bruised.”

The New Orleans Times-Picayune editorial board praised Johnson for showing “his pragmatic side” in the budget negotiations.

“Johnson showed he was willing to put country over the extreme wing of his own party and work in good faith across the aisle. He also demonstrated an understanding of how to negotiate under circumstances that are complex, to put it mildly,” the board wrote. “It won’t win him any favor from the shut-it-down wing of the GOP — the same folks who turned on Johnson’s predecessor Kevin McCarthy after he cut a similar budget deal last year — but the agreement suggests Johnson is willing to take some friendly fire while keeping his eye on what matters.”

“We have to be encouraged by the willingness of both sides to get down to the country’s business,” the board added. “There’s plenty in getting the endless budget machinations behind him for Johnson too, as he’s got other things — particularly the chaos at the country’s southern border, which he visited last week — on his own agenda. For the country as a whole, though, the first order of business is to keep the ‘open’ sign turned on. That shouldn’t even be a question, but since in today’s political environment it is, we’re glad to see Johnson doing his considerable part.”

What the right is saying.

  • The right is mixed on the deal and acknowledges that it’s functionally the same as McCarthy’s budget agreement.
  • Many bemoan that the deal makes no attempt to address the government’s most exorbitant areas of spending. 
  • A small section of the right sees the deal as a pragmatic move by Johnson to demonstrate that Republicans can govern effectively. 

National Review’s editors criticized the deal as another “punt on spending.”

“This deal doesn’t include the two spending items that have been the focus of Congress’s attention the past few months: border security and aid for Ukraine and Israel. Bills on those subjects could pass at a later date, potentially adding over $100 billion more in spending this year,” the editors said. “And of course this deal is only for discretionary spending, which is projected to be roughly balanced anyway in the long run. The driver of the national debt is mandatory spending: Social Security, health-care programs, and interest payments.”

“Keeping discretionary spending roughly equal to last year’s is a perfect demonstration of Washington’s unseriousness on fiscal policy. Last year, the deficit was $2 trillion. It was a year of low unemployment, no major new domestic programs, no U.S. forces involved in major wars, and tax revenue comfortably above the historical average as a share of the economy. Coming up $2 trillion short in those conditions is an embarrassing failure of leadership, starting with the president and his administration and running all the way through both chambers of Congress.”

In The Los Angeles Times, Jonah Goldberg asked “will Mike Johnson get away with betraying MAGA House members?”

“I’m a big believer in the power of arguments in a democracy, but the simple fact is that arguments within Congress matter less than the raw numbers behind who is making the arguments,” Goldberg wrote. “When you can afford to lose a dozen senators of your own party and nearly a 100 representatives in the House on a given piece of legislation, it’s relatively easy to get your way. That’s simply how our system works. Apparently, the House Freedom Caucus doesn’t get this.”

“The argument Republicans need to win is at the ballot box. It doesn’t matter that House Freedom Caucus members are in safe seats and won their elections. They need Republicans in competitive seats, and lots of them, to win. That’s because millions of Americans elected Democrats to oppose Republican policies. The idea that a weak House speaker with a tiny and sharply divided majority can simply overpower the Senate and the White House is childish nonsense.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said the deal gives Republicans “a chance to show they can actually govern.”

“Fiscal 2024 discretionary spending (through this September) will remain at $1.59 trillion, as specified by statute in the Fiscal Responsibility Act agreed to by former Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Biden in May. That’s a minor victory by itself since Senate appropriators intended to bust that cap by adding another $14 billion,” the board wrote. “The rub is that Mr. McCarthy and the White House negotiated several side deals that increased domestic spending by an additional $69 billion. While that number remains, Mr. Johnson managed to offset $16 billion with other cuts.”

“House Freedom Caucus members are denouncing the deal as a sellout, but they always do. Could they do better with a three-seat margin in the House and Democrats in charge of the Senate and White House? There’s no evidence they have a plan beyond the futile gesture of shutting down the government,” the board said. “The cheapest trick in politics is to pound the table in outrage at everyone else’s failure without offering a constructive idea for doing better. This is part of the GOP’s current affliction, and the Speaker’s deal is an antidote.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • The Johnson-Schumer deal is basically the McCarthy-Biden deal.
  • I fully support Republicans’ effort and strategies to limit spending and earnestly pursue fiscal responsibility, but the outcomes have been flat.
  • Johnson now has to break his promise to his caucus or allow a government shutdown.

We are right back where we started.

When Johnson was chosen as Speaker, I said my biggest concern about him is his inexperience. I floated the possibility that how green he is might help him — perhaps not having enemies and having very little known about him would be an advantage in these kinds of negotiations. But I also posited that being in the room with far more experienced power players in Washington like Biden, McConnell, and Schumer was going to make his job very difficult.

After the November deal to pass a laddered stopgap funding bill, I said Johnson "deserves more credit than criticism" for trying something new, and I wasn't going to judge the outcome until this deal got fleshed out. But now I think it’s safe to say that Johnson got steamrolled — and that it isn't really his fault.

The fundamental takeaway here is that this deal is only marginally different from what Speaker Kevin McCarthy got, and that the last few months of turmoil in the House Republican caucus — the fight for speaker, the ouster of McCarthy, the search for his replacement — all of it got them right back where they were before.

Indeed, the biggest changes in the chamber since then are that McCarthy and a number of other House Republicans are retiring or resigning, in part (if you believe what they've said) because of how chaotic and unproductive the chamber is. Rep. George Santos (R-NY) has been expelled, and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) is leaving D.C. for cancer treatment. The net effect is that their voting majority has narrowed and the number of seats they need to defend in the upcoming election has increased. In political terms, House Republicans are in a weaker position now than before they ousteding McCarthy.

And I’m not thrilled to say that because I support the thrust of what House Republicans like Johnson are trying to accomplish. Our spending is completely out of control, and Johnson's desire to get Congress to pass 12 appropriations bills individually with lots of deliberation and debate is the correct north star. That is how Congress is supposed to work. Our spending should be flat, if not cut, and we desperately need reforms to social security, Medicare, and the military (which still wastes our money at an extraordinary rate). 

I also appreciate conservative House Republicans like the Freedom Caucus wielding their power in the most impactful ways possible. Far too much power in Congress sits with too few leaders at the top, and if Democrats had a contingent of members willing to buck the party leadership in real tangible ways (rather than always falling in line) the institution as a whole would be a lot healthier. Say what you will about Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) or Chip Roy (R-TX), but they are maximizing their impacts given their stature and experience.

That strategy is one thing — outcomes are another. And it doesn’t look like anything good is coming Johnson's way. If he sticks to his pledge of no more short-term spending bills, then the government will shut down, because there is simply not enough time for appropriators to get the job done before January 19. But if he passes another short-term spending bill, then he'll be breaking his promise on top of getting a pittance more than McCarthy got, which could spark a fresh rebellion against his leadership.

The reality for Republicans remains the same either way: Democrats control the White House. They control the Senate. And Republicans have the narrowest of majorities in the House. Until that changes, Republicans aren't going to be able to get everything they want, regardless of who the Speaker is.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Trump's lawyers argued his case for immunity in court [yesterday]. Did they change your mind?

— Paul from New York 

Tangle: No. They did not. If anything, they further convinced me how weak his arguments are.

Reminder: Special Counsel Jack Smith asked the Supreme Court to expedite their determination of whether Trump is immune from prosecution. Tangle covered that extraordinary request when it looked like SCOTUS was going to take it up, but after Trump's lawyers filed their own brief, the court determined that it would not hear arguments before an appeals court did. Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard Trump's appeal — and it did not appear to go well for his team.

All three judges seemed skeptical of the Trump team's position. The moment that got all the headlines was when Judge Florence Pan asked Trump's lawyers if a president could order Seal Team Six to assassinate a political rival and be immune from prosecution (judges often have a very special talent for getting right to the core of an issue). Trump's attorney D. John Sauer responded that before such prosecution takes place, Trump would need to be impeached and convicted. The judge repeated her question, saying she sought a "yes or no" answer, and Trump's attorney said it was a "qualified yes'' because "there is a political process that would have to occur."

I hope the absurdity of that is self-evident. But to make it painfully clear, if a president orders Seal Team Six to murder his top political rival, we shouldn’t need Congress to impeach the president (and convict him) before being able to do something about it. And if Congress somehow decided not to convict him in an impeachment trial, that president should still face actual prosecution. The obvious point here (which the government's lawyers did make) is that, under the logic of Trump’s attorneys, a president could murder someone, resign before being impeached, and be allowed to walk free.

But that wasn’t team Trump’s only argument. They also argued that his actions fighting the election results were part of his official duties as president, and that those official acts are specifically what must be prosecuted by Congress before being prosecuted anywhere else. The appeals court could, potentially, respond to this line of argument by asking the trial court to determine the question of whether his actions fighting the election results were official acts or not, sending this debate back to the lower court and further delaying the trial.

But again, Judge Karen Henderson (the lone Republican on the panel) cut through the defense in clear, simple terms. “I think it’s paradoxical to say that his [Trump's] constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed allows him to violate criminal law,” she said.

All this is to say that I don't think Trump's immunity here hinges on Congress impeaching him or not. I don't think the appeals court will rule that, nor do I think the Supreme Court would, and I definitely don't think his actions after the 2020 election all amounted to "official acts" as president. So no, I did not find his attorneys’ arguments compelling in the least, and I don't think his current line of defense is going to be effective.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, the prosecutor who charged Donald Trump and 18 others with participating in a criminal enterprise to subvert Biden's election win, has been subpoenaed to testify in a colleague's divorce proceeding. The development could shed light on allegations that Willis and the colleague had an improper romantic relationship when they sought to prosecute former President Donald Trump. Separately, Trump co-defendant Mike Roman has alleged that Willis improperly hired the colleague, Nathan Wade, and seeks to disqualify Willis from the case she brought against Trump and other defendants. The Wall Street Journal has the story (paywall).


  • 5.1%. Nondefense spending as a percentage of GDP in the U.S. budget in 1955. 
  • 12.6%. Nondefense spending as a percentage of GDP in the U.S. budget in 2000.
  • 18.6%. Nondefense spending as a percentage of GDP in the U.S. budget in 2023.
  • $7.5 trillion. U.S. government expenditures in Q1 of 2020.
  • $10.8 trillion. U.S. government expenditures in Q2 of 2020.
  • $9.4 trillion. U.S. government expenditures in Q2 of 2023.
  • 42%. The percentage of Americans who said reducing the budget deficit should be a top priority for the president and Congress in 2021, according to a Pew survey. 
  • 57%. The percentage of Americans who said reducing the budget deficit should be a top priority for the president and Congress in 2023. 

The extras.

  • One year ago today we covered the $1.6 trillion omnibus bill.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was once again Pew's 10 facts about alcohol consumption.
  • Compromise or appeasement: 681 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking about Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's (R) recent veto of a bill and executive order restricting access to gender transition surgeries for minors with 50% of readers supporting both the veto and the executive order. 24% support the veto but oppose the executive order, 10% oppose the veto and the executive order, and 13% oppose the veto and support the executive order. "If he wanted to put forth a compromise executive order, it should have been done concurrently with the veto. Scrambling to appease after the fact isn’t a good look for him," one respondent said.
  • Nothing to do with politics: Coastal aquatics: New York's upcoming floating river pool and California's glowing blue waves.
  • Take the poll. What do you think of the spending deal? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl is the kind of hero we need in times like these. Between recent shows in Australia, Grohl spent a rare day off in Melbourne volunteering for The Big Umbrella Foundation, a food rescue charity. During a heat wave, the charity said that Grohl spent “18 hours preparing and lovingly smoking 120kgs (44 lbs) of pork ribs, pork butt, and beef brisket.” By the end of the day, Grohl and his fellow volunteers had served over 430 meals to locals in need. “It will be a day 'our friends on the streets' will never forget as they brushed up against a rock legend and one of the nicest guys on the planet, who genuinely cares for people in need,” read a caption on Big Umbrella Foundation’s Instagram page. “No words can fully capture the impact of this positive experience.” Good Good Good has the story.

Review Article with Credder

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.