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Johnson ratchets up pressure for stricter border policy — but stops short of calling for shutdown

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Speaker Mike Johnson doubled down Wednesday on Republicans’ push for stricter border policies — but stopped short of embracing his right flank’s demand to shut down the government without action.

Those critical funding deadlines are rapidly approaching, with the first set to hit on Jan. 19 and the second in early February. Senators have worked to strike a separate, bipartisan deal on border security and foreign aid for more than a month, but have so far failed to reach an agreement, even after the White House took a more aggressive role in the talks.

Asked about shutting down the government during a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border with dozens of other House Republicans, Johnson cautioned that it was “too early to pre-judge any of that,” pointing to ongoing negotiations with the White House over government funding. But as Washington draws closer to the first deadline — and still lacks an agreement even on overall spending levels — he warned that Republicans are “resolved” on their “top two priorities.”

“We want to get the border closed and secured… and we want to make sure that we reduce non-defense discretionary spending,” Johnson said.

Johnson and his colleagues used the Texas trip to hammer the Biden administration over what they characterized as a lack of action on the border, a hot-button issue they plan to use as a top cudgel against Democrats heading into November. Several conservative Republicans are urging Johnson to shut down the government unless they secure significant migration policy changes — a strategy some in that group say got support from Texas officials and others they met with during the trip.

“Multiple Texas stakeholders — from property rights advocates to sheriffs — urged us to shut down the border or shut down the government. It is refreshing that Speaker Johnson curated such an important and clear message,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who led the ouster of Johnson’s predecessor, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Asked during a subsequent interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper how seriously he takes threats from his right flank to oppose government funding, Johnson reiterated that the border and cutting spending are Republicans’ top priorities but “I’m not going to address hypotheticals.”

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) preempted Johnson’s trip by urging House GOP leadership in a Tuesday letter to be ready to partially shut down the government without significant border concessions. Without the latter, he warned, he will vote against any government funding or aid package.

“We must make funding for federal government operations contingent on the President signing H.R.2, or its functional equivalent, into law,” Roy wrote in a letter to his colleagues, referring to a conservative-favored border bill that Democrats have widely rejected. He added that he skipped Wednesday’s trip because “our people … are tired of meetings, speeches, and press conferences.”

House Republicans passed the sweeping bill last year, which would raise the asylum standard and fund the continued building of the border wall, in addition to other GOP migration priorities. Senate Majority Chuck Schumer has said the legislation is a non-starter in his chamber, urging bipartisan border negotiators to come to another type of consensus.

Still, any deal reached by those senators would still need to get through the House, where Johnson and other Republicans have reiterated that H.R. 2 is their standard. Though some House Republicans have been briefed on the status of discussions, the conference has largely remained on the sidelines of those ongoing talks.

“Our position is very clear and we have made that clear for seven months: H.R. 2 is the necessary ingredient,” Johnson said on Wednesday.

Underscoring the gulf between the two chambers, Schumer warned reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday that “when the House clings to H.R. 2 as the only solution … we’re not going to get a deal.”

“I think if the Senate gets something done in a bipartisan way, it will put enormous pressure on the House to get something done as well,” Schumer added.

The White House and the administration also also went on defense ahead of Johnson’s border presser, accusing Republicans of paying lip service.

“Actions speak louder than words,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement first obtained by POLITICO. “House Republicans’ anti-border security record is defined by attempting to cut Customs and Border Protection personnel, opposing President Biden’s record-breaking border security funding, and refusing to take up the President’s supplemental funding request.”

A senior administration official added that Johnson and House Republicans “should stop playing politics and work with the administration and the Senate to pass meaningful reforms.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are also ramping up a revived effort to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over his handling of the border, which would make him the first Cabinet official to be impeached since 1876.

House Homeland Security Committee Chair Mark Green (R-Tenn.) will hold hearings this month related to that effort, and has pledged that his committee will vote on an impeachment resolution. The first hearing will be on Jan. 10.

“The cause of the problem is Alejandro Mayorkas. … Accountability is coming, I promise,” he said on Wednesday.

A DHS spokesperson said in a statement ahead of Republicans’ border trip that there is “no valid basis to impeach Secretary Mayorkas, as senior members of the House majority have attested, and this extreme impeachment push is a harmful distraction from our critical national security priorities.”

Support within the conference for impeaching Mayorkas has quietly been gaining steam behind the scenes. But Republicans still have a rough path given their thinning majority, a handful of openly skeptical members and Democrats’ likely unanimous opposition. Rep. Bill Johnson’s (R-Ohio) departure on Jan. 21 will bring them down to a two-vote margin. Plus, Democrats are feeling optimistic about their chances to flip former GOP Rep. George Santos’ seat during a Feb. 13 special election.

Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.