By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Hardline Republicans who repeatedly brought the U.S. House of Representatives to a halt last year were sidelined in this month's bipartisan push to avert a government shutdown, as even some in their own party tired of their demands.
The House on Thursday passed a stopgap measure meant to give Congress a few more weeks to approve a $1.59 trillion spending deal negotiated by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson for the 2024 fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
It passed 314-108 after Johnson used a parliamentary maneuver to bypass the small, vocal band of hardliners, who spent the past year trying to force sharp spending cuts and conservative culture-war policies on the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-majority Senate.
"Those individuals have now overplayed their hand," said Republican Representative Greg Murphy, a member of the Republican Study Committee conservative caucus. "When you cry wolf enough, people don't listen to you."
Hardliners, led by members of the House Freedom Caucus, last year helped push the U.S. to the brink of default, blocked House floor action to protest a spending deal between Democratic President Joe Biden and Johnson's predecessor as speaker, Kevin McCarthy, and ultimately booted McCarthy from his role.
They now find themselves boxed out on spending, at a time when the nation's debt has surpassed $34 trillion.
They could yet seek revenge on Johnson and try to oust him as they did McCarthy, though they would need Democratic help to do so. They could also try to gum up the works of passing the full-year spending bill before the stopgap runs out in early March, or exploit the nation's year-end debt-ceiling deadline to make new demands.
Hardliners are threatening to withhold support for bills that have little chance of passing Congress but are meant to highlight Republican positions on issues such as abortion and taxes in an election year.
"If you don't need our votes for the substantive bills, like the large spending packages, you shouldn't presume that you're going to get them for the stuff that doesn't matter," Freedom Caucus chairman Bob Good told reporters.
But for now, is it game over for the hardline band on 2024 spending?
"I think you could see it that way," said Representative Dan Bishop, a Freedom Caucus member.
"The problem that exists now is the problem that has existed all along, which is that there is a significant body of the Republican conference who will not fight to achieve meaningful conservative gains," the North Carolina Republican said.
Other Republicans say the bipartisan path is simply a recognition of reality, at a time when the Senate and White House are in Democratic hands, and Republicans hold a narrow 220-213 House majority.
"At the end of the day, we control one-half of one branch of government, and we're working against Senate Democrats, House Democrats -- to be honest, Senate Republicans -- and the White House," said Representative Kelly Armstrong. "We have to deal with reality."
Schumer pointed to the passage of the stopgap as a victory over the far right.
"This kind of bullying almost never works. The hard right's bullying didn't work when we avoided default," the New York Democrat said on the Senate floor. "It didn't work when we avoided shutdown last year, and it didn't work today either."
While establishment and centrist Republicans call hardliners "the people who say 'no'," Bishop described Republicans who oppose the ultra-conservatives as "people who don't want anything to change."
While hardliners admit their hands are tied on spending for the moment, some say the bipartisan path taken by McCarthy and Johnson could face rising opposition from Republicans beyond the roughly three-dozen Freedom Caucus members.
In May, the bipartisan bill that narrowly avoided default on U.S. debt drew opposition from 71 Republicans. In September, 90 Republicans opposed a bipartisan measure averting an Oct. 1 government shutdown. And in November, the number of Republican voting against reached 93 on Johnson's initial stopgap spending bill.
Thursday's Republican opposition vote was higher still, with 106 party members opposing the stopgap - only one less than the 107 Republicans who backed it.
"I think the whole Republican Party is side-lined if this all goes through," Representative Andy Biggs, a former Freedom Caucus chairman, said of the prospect for bipartisan 2024 spending legislation.
After Johnson rejected hardliners' demands to spike his agreement with Schumer, the group quickly shifted gears to focus on the U.S.-Mexico border, vowing to press for partisan restrictions contained in legislation called HR-2, which Democrats oppose.
Some hardliners have threatened to try to oust Johnson if he brings a border security deal to the floor as part of a package that would also include aid to U.S. allies including Ukraine.
But some Democrats -- whose votes likely would be needed to oust Johnson as speaker -- said they did not want to see a replay of the three weeks of chaos that followed McCarthy's ouster.
"I don't think we're going to put the House back into that chaos," said Democratic Representative Jared Moskowitz, who said the world has grown more challenging since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and Israel's subsequent invasion of Gaza.
Biggs and other hardline Republicans say the best way to achieve a conservative win on the border would be a November election victory for former President Donald Trump, who called on Johnson to reject any bipartisan border agreement from the Senate.
"I do not think we should do a Border Deal, at all, unless we get EVERYTHING needed to shut down the INVASION of Millions & Millions of people," Trump said on social media.
"I have no doubt that our wonderful Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, will only make a deal that is PERFECT ON THE BORDER."
(Reporting by David Morgan; Additional reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)
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