Mike Johnson’s Honeymoon As House Speaker Is So Over

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House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) took the speaker’s gavel Oct. 25. Less than three months later, it’s unclear how much longer he’ll be able to keep it.

Some of the same House GOP intraparty dynamics that brought down Johnson’s predecessor, former speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), are beginning to show up again after being sublimated in the drive to get out of Washington at the end of last year.

Fanning those flames are two choices Johnson will have to make soon: how hard to push a deal with the Senate on annual spending that has ignited right-wing resistance; and whether to accept a deal on border policy changes that may emerge from the Senate.

“This is not what we all want. It’s not the best deal that we could get if we were in charge of both chambers [of Congress] and the White House. But it’s the best deal we could broker under the circumstances,” Johnson said Tuesday night of the proposed spending deal.

The bargain is on the overall amount of spending for government agencies and programs outside of Social Security and Medicare and would hew closely to the one haggled last year by McCarthy, at $1.59 trillion for the budget year ending Sept. 30. But Johnson said the new bargain would cut some related agreements that would have allowed more spending, and thus was a win.

But the original $1.59 trillion deal was the genesis for McCarthy’s troubles, and the changes won by Johnson did little to assuage right-wing House Republicans who say they’re worried about the national debt.

On Wednesday, a small group of hardliners opposed to the budget deal voted against a procedural measure setting rules for moving other legislation on the House floor. By tanking the “rule,” as it’s known, the group can effectively stop the House from functioning at all.

Johnson oversees a narrowly divided House with 220 Republicans and 213 Democrats, meaning he can lose a maximum of three GOP votes and still prevail on the floor. And that margin is going to get even closer with the announced-but-not-yet-effective resignation of Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) to become a college president.

That very narrow margin for error has not, however, insulated Johnson from criticism that he is not doing enough to get legislative victories since he took over.

Before lawmakers left Washington for the holiday break, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) gave a speech on the House floor complaining Republicans did not have a single policy win to show their voters. He raised the possibility of formally calling for Johnson’s ouster this week, because of the spending deal.

“Now, unfortunately, Speaker Johnson is doing all the same stupid crap that we opposed,” he told Fox News Jan. 9.

“I’m not going to say what would trigger [a vote], what wouldn’t trigger. What I would say is we’ve got to do better than this.”

Right-wing members of the House GOP caucus are not satisfied with a spending deal brokered by Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.).
Right-wing members of the House GOP caucus are not satisfied with a spending deal brokered by Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.).

Anna Moneymaker via Getty Images

The influential House Freedom Caucus, a group of right-wing and libertarian House Republicans, also labeled the spending deal “a total failure.”

Still, given what happened in October, when it took three weeks that kept the House at a standstill to select a new speaker among House Republicans, Johnson has some reason to think his job is safe — for the moment, at least.

Liam Donovan, a principal with lobbying firm Bracewell LLP, said Johnson is keenly aware of the dynamics in his conference and trying not to antagonize any wing of it. Similarly, he said, Republicans are weary of the image of chaos projected by the speaker battle and have no desire to repeat it.

“Public posturing aside, that should provide the equilibrium necessary to survive coming weeks and months unscathed,” he said.

“Not because the rump that hijacked the chamber in October was sated, chastened, or learned any particular lessons, but because you still can’t put it past them and therefore take nothing for granted,” he said.

Johnson himself appeared painfully aware of the thickness of the ice on which he’s operating at a Wednesday morning press conference. Johnson had previously said he opposed any more stopgap spending bills but facing a partial shutdown of the government after Jan. 19, Senate Republicans have said one will be needed to give lawmakers time to pass the individual bills to carry out the annual spending agreement.

Asked whether he would go along with that idea, Johnson said, “I’m not ruling out anything, committing to anything, other than getting these appropriations done. And I think we can.”

As for whether he was worried about getting ousted, Johnson said he wasn’t.

“I’m not concerned about that,” he said. “This, to me, this deal, this agreement, is a downpayment on restoring us to fiscal sanity in this country.”

Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.

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