Just three weeks into the job, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has landed in the same legislative dead end that left Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as political road kill.
Just as former speaker McCarthy did in the spring, on a debt deal, and on Sept. 30, in a government funding bill, Johnson had to rely on House Democrats on Tuesday to advance a bill that keeps federal agencies running deep into the winter as more than 42 percent of his caucus objected.
And just as happened with McCarthy in June and September, Johnson subsequently suffered an embarrassing defeat Wednesday on a procedural motion to bring a bill funding the Justice Department and a few other agencies to the House floor.
This time around, however, Johnson saw a revolt from his far-right flank and from four New York moderates in GOP swing districts who had previously been deeply loyal to McCarthy on such votes.
Rep. Roger Williams (R-Tex.), one of six contestants in the final nomination vote that ended with Johnson claiming the speaker’s gavel last month, let out a loud laugh Wednesday when asked if he was glad that he didn’t actually win.
“Well, let me tell you, it’s a heck of a tough job. And I support him all the way,” Williams said.
The idea that Johnson would ever have a honeymoon within that fractious GOP ranks was a false premise, he said. “I don’t know if there’s a honeymoon period, you know, because it’s an hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute job, things changing all the time.”
To be sure, Johnson is in no danger of getting bounced out of this job anytime soon. McCarthy’s staunchest opponents did not trust him but see Johnson as a more kindred spirit, having earned his bona fides from his years of legal work on religious-right issues.
“The speaker says he’s going to be tough and fight it out. And I intend to make sure that he is tough and will fight it out,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) told reporters after casting one of the 19 GOP votes that defeated the procedural rule vote Wednesday.
But Biggs noted there is not a trust deficit with Johnson.
“Yeah, I trust him,” said Biggs, who was also one of the eight Republicans who helped oust McCarthy as speaker. “He says he’ll do it. I trust him.”
But the biggest lesson over the last few weeks is, no matter how much more these conservatives trust the new speaker over the old speaker, they are no more likely to vote for his compromise deals with Democrats.
Plus, as Wednesday’s mini-uprising from the moderate wing indicated, Johnson does not have the same amount of loyalty from the establishment wing of the House Republican Conference.
One of McCarthy’s most trusted allies offered a bleak outlook as the House left town for a long Thanksgiving break, suggesting the only hope would come in next year’s elections if Republicans could win more seats with more lawmakers loyal to the speaker.
“Grow the majority. There’s not a functional majority. There’s not,” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) told reporters.
He predicted that the months ahead would bring more legislative chaos as the tasks get more and more difficult.
“Overall, the functionality is going to get a little worse before, hopefully, it gets better,” Graves said.
Johnson has bought himself time to try to figure out if he can get things back on track, with two deadlines — Jan. 19, for agencies that represent about 20 percent of overall funding, and Feb. 2, for the vast majority of remaining agencies such as the Pentagon.
But it’s clear that Johnson, if he wants to pass laws, is going to have to reach deals with Senate Democrats and President Biden that will disappoint staunch conservatives like Biggs.
Two big national security tests await next month, one being the annual policy bill for the Pentagon and the other a proposed $106 billion emergency request to fund the defenses of Israel and Ukraine, to beef up U.S.-Mexico border security and to support Taiwan.
The House took a sharply partisan approach to its National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), loading it up with social policy riders that hard-right Republicans demanded, passing it almost entirely on party lines. The Senate took a more traditional approach and won passage with an 86-11 vote, giving the upper chamber leverage in those negotiations.
The NDAA has passed every year for six decades and, as the most important must-pass bill before the year-end holidays, will probably turn into a legislative Christmas tree that will have other, less-important bills attached to it.
Some traditional security hawks are likely to view the NDAA as the best vehicle to attach the emergency funding for Israel and Ukraine and others, but Republicans are holding out for a serious, strict conservative bill about the Southwest border.
Almost half the House GOP opposes the additional funding for Ukraine, following former president Donald Trump’s “America First” views, but those same lawmakers deeply support funding Israel’s war against Hamas.
And then early next year, Johnson has to figure out the two-step funding plan for government agencies. Democrats are licking their chops over these legislative battles, knowing that the new speaker will almost certainly come to them for help.
“It should be obvious to anyone who is watching that House Republicans are unable to govern on their own. Period, full stop, no further observation necessary,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told reporters Wednesday.
Biggs warned that, whatever nicer feelings his contingent has for Johnson over McCarthy, that group could end up using the same tactics of disruption in the new year.
“You basically set yourself up to have the same scenario in January and perhaps even in February that you had this week. So that’s a problem,” Biggs said.
They have used parliamentary process to turn McCarthy’s plans, and now Johnson’s, into a miserable wreck. Most legislation in the House must first go through the Rules Committee, which sets up the time and contours of the floor debate and determines which amendments receive votes.
In his marathon round of votes in early January to win the speakership, McCarthy gave in to conservative demands and placed hard-liners on the Rules Committee, effectively giving them enough leverage to block legislation deemed insufficiently conservative.
He also sent a signal to the roughly two dozen other hard-line conservatives that when the rule vote happened on the House floor, they could oppose that and defeat it. By tradition, the minority party does not provide votes to pass the procedural rule vote, but Democrats provided those key votes to approve the rule to set up the final vote on the debt bill in May.
To get around that blockade in late September, McCarthy advanced the government funding bill by putting it on a fast-track calendar that is normally used for non-controversial bills such as naming post offices. It requires a two-thirds majority to win passage.
He won that vote, 335-91, but McCarthy had 90 Republicans oppose his move, and three days later Biggs and seven of his GOP friends forced the vote that ousted him as speaker.
Johnson found himself in the same predicament this week, knowing that a bunch of Republicans would sabotage the parliamentary vote and leave his two-step funding plan in tatters.
So on Tuesday he put the funding bill on what is known as the suspension calendar and, while it easily cleared the two-thirds threshold, Johnson got almost the exact same result as McCarthy did six weeks earlier.
Among House Republicans, 127 voted yes with Johnson, while 93 voted no, compared to a 126-90 vote for McCarthy on Sept. 30. Veteran Republicans who want to keep the government functioning liked his decision-making.
“He’s got the most difficult job in the world. But right now, so far, he’s really, really impressed me,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) told reporters Wednesday.
Some veterans, however, lament that McCarthy allowed the far right the freedom to vote against these parliamentary votes, noting that previous speakers, such as John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), would punish wayward Republicans with things such as removal from key committees.
“Under Boehner, for example, he would cut you off if you didn’t vote for the rule,” Williams said. “But look, everybody has their own leadership style.”
So Biggs now has time, also, to figure out how far he and other hard-liners want to go to block future compromises. He doesn’t know how it will turn out, but — for now — he trusts Johnson.
“I don’t know. The speaker tells me he’s got a plan,” Biggs said.