Moments before pandemonium broke out on the House floor on Tuesday evening, House Majority Whip Tom Emmer approached Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who had assumed a leisurely slouch in a rickety wooden chair in the back of the House chamber, for what appeared to be a quick chat.
Unbeknownst to reporters whose eyes were trained on Emmer — the member of House leadership responsible for counting votes — he informed Buck that the vote to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was going to result in a tie.
Buck, one of the three House Republicans who voted to sink the articles of impeachment, said Wednesday that he hadn’t heard from anyone in leadership before that moment — despite publicly declaring his opposition to the measure well ahead of the vote. (A senior leadership aide familiar with his outreach efforts, who like others in this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana spent ample time working with others who had been on the fence.)
“Speaker Johnson never called me,” Buck said. “[Former speaker Kevin McCarthy] would have yelled — Mike knows me well enough not to yell. And [former speaker John A.] Boehner would have broken my arm. It’s gotten easier as I’ve been here.”
The surprise defeat stunned many in the House GOP conference, who were incredulous that Johnson would roll the dice on such a consequential vote. The saga was the latest in a tenure marred by chaos and frustration, with members starting to lose patience with an inexperienced leader who they feel has made serious tactical missteps overseeing an unwieldy conference that even Republicans admit may be impossible to corral.
The dysfunction in the House Republican conference was rivaled only by that of its counterpart in the Senate. Republicans this week killed a border security bill that a small bipartisan group of senators spent months negotiating after House Republicans telegraphed that their conference — and by extension, the far-right base led by former president Donald Trump — would not support the bill.
The GOP leaders’ shaky hold over their conferences has led Democrats to fret about whether the House can again avert a government shutdown ahead of a March 1 deadline — as well as whether Congress may abandon key U.S. allies during wartime.
The chaos that has plagued congressional Republicans has intensified as Trump has tightened his grip on the party in his bid to lock up the GOP presidential nomination. Johnson and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have applied dramatically different approaches to Trump, with Johnson keeping in lockstep with the former president while McConnell has frostily kept his distance. But Trump’s influence has minimized their credibility with and sway over their colleagues. It has also caused some members to fear that the emerging leadership vacuum and their inability to govern could cost them politically.
“That was a really massive failure,” one House GOP lawmaker said Wednesday of Johnson’s decision to bring the Mayorkas vote to the floor, followed by a failed vote to pass $17.6 billion in aid to Israel. “You combine that with what is going on right now with the whole Senate immigration debacle. … The way that these things have been handled — this is an opportunity for the White House to … dump this on our lap and that could be a huge political mistake.”
A similar sentiment was echoed later in the day in the Senate after a contentious closed-door GOP luncheon, where Republicans bemoaned the political disarray that has consumed them.
“It’s been a total disaster,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) declared to reporters about how GOP leaders handled the border bill. “Why would voters look at what goes on over here, this circus, and say we want more of this? … I don’t think the last three months could have been handled any worse than it has been handled from a leadership perspective.”
Senate Republicans, who tend to view themselves as the more deliberative and efficient legislative body, have over the past few months come to resemble their rowdier House counterparts: unable to follow through on major promises and increasingly beholden to the far-right flank of the party. As Trump and conservative commentators panned the border deal that would have marked the first significant action taken by Congress on immigration in decades, Senate Republicans soon pulled the rug out from under a colleague, Sen. James Lankford (Okla.), the lead GOP negotiator.
“I used to say that the Senate was a lot different than the House, that there were more Republican pragmatists, people who want to do the right thing for national security,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). “I don’t know if that’s still true anymore after this week, so I’m not sure where we go from here.”
In an angry floor speech ahead of the vote, Lankford said he was disappointed that some colleagues were deciding not to try to solve the border crisis simply because it’s a presidential election year. Lankford also said he was threatened by a “popular commentator,” who told him, “If you try to move a bill that solves the border crisis during this presidential year, I will do whatever I can to destroy you.”
The dual implosions served a blow to McConnell’s reputation as a canny political operator and Johnson’s bid to establish himself as a credible and authoritative leader.
Johnson addressed his decision to bring the impeachment vote to the floor in a news conference Wednesday morning, saying that “sometimes when you’re counting votes and people show up when they’re not expected to be in the building, it changes the equation.” But some House GOP lawmakers argued that such back-to-back failed votes would not have materialized under McCarthy (R-Calif.). They also criticized Johnson’s team for not building out a more robust operation to rally members around various pieces of legislation.
“Generally, you don’t put things on the floor when they’re going to fail — especially when you build up all that momentum behind it, hold news conferences and talk about it,” said Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio).
A senior leadership aide countered some of the members who praised McCarthy, arguing that the “conference was challenging for McCarthy and it’s challenging now. There’s a lot of things that are unpredictable and that makes whipping and winning close votes tough.”
The challenge for leadership became apparent to some members during a meeting Monday, when Johnson confidently proclaimed that Republicans only needed to convince one more colleague ahead of a successful impeachment vote. Emmer interjected, informing the speaker that he would talk to him later about the whip count, indicating to multiple people in the room that leadership was not on the same page about where the vote stood.
A senior leadership aide noted that Emmer didn’t want to get into a discussion of the whip count in front of a large group of members whom he feared would leak the private conversation. But some lawmakers privately wondered why Johnson had not realized that several Republicans — as many as five at the time — were weighing how to vote, and why he still insisted on rushing the vote.
“Our leadership team was aware of all possible scenarios, and I support Speaker Johnson’s decision to go forward with the vote. We look forward to taking care of this next week,” Emmer (R-Minn.) said in a statement to The Washington Post.
It’s been a particularly bruising stretch for McConnell as well, given that just four Senate Republicans voted on Wednesday for the sweeping national security and border package that his staff helped negotiate. McConnell, who has made backing Ukraine and the U.S. commitment to NATO a core issue, has struggled to find a way to deliver the votes given the issue’s unpopularity among many in the GOP base and Johnson’s insistence that he would not pass it without strict border changes attached. As Trump’s criticism of the deal grew louder, so did the dissatisfaction within the conference, with some members beginning to grumble that McConnell was leading them into a confrontation with their likely presidential nominee.
“How do we get in this position where the American public supports us in trying to secure the border and now we’re going to be blamed for it?” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a longtime McConnell critic. “The only reason we’re in that [situation] is because Mitch McConnell walked us straight into it against certainly a lot of discussion in the conference not to do that.”
McConnell defended himself in a recent interview with Politico, saying he has always had a small group of critics who “had their shot” to oust him in 2022, when he overcame a leadership challenge from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).
Legislating during presidential election years has often been a challenge on Capitol Hill, depending on who holds the majority. Leaders have been prone to deferring major bills and politically risky decisions. But the level of productivity in the 118th Congress has been historically low: Congress passed just 29 bills that were signed into law last year. And there is little expectation of a flurry of activity ahead of November, as lawmakers are behind the curve on their most basic responsibilities — such as completing last year’s budget appropriations work.
After passing the third stopgap spending bill in four months to keep the federal government open at the end of January, lawmakers need to again avert a government shutdown. There is no clear plan on how to fund the government after that and there is limited time to negotiate a package, as the Senate will soon leave town for two weeks and the House will be in session for eight days over the rest of the month.
“The number of laws that passed for 2023 was quite low, but the picture looks a little worse if we think about what Congress should be doing but is not,” said Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. “In the current environment, there’s not a ton to suggest that we will see any activity between now and November.”