Can Speaker Johnson bring divided Republicans together?


Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) heads into the New Year facing a daunting legislative to-do list, a tiny window to get it passed and a warring GOP conference that will complicate his strategy at every turn.

As the new Speaker approaches a pair of urgent deadlines to fund the government through the remainder of the fiscal year, he’s being squeezed between competing GOP interests and confronting the same predicaments that felled his predecessor, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Some of the restive conservatives who toppled McCarthy have given Johnson some early space on sticky issues, particularly on passing a “clean” funding stopgap. 

But they are getting more restless and openly frustrated with some of his tactics — a sign of potential trouble when Congress returns to address divisive issues like government spending and aid for Ukraine.

Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), one of the eight Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy, signaled that patience with Johnson is running short even as he views him more favorably than McCarthy.

“I realize it’s a game of numbers. But I’m ready to start taking some stands,” Burchett said.

How Johnson handles the competing internal pressures will set the tone for 2024, determine if government operations cease or persist, and could impact not only the outcome of the elections but also whether Johnson will still have the gavel when November arrives.

He is feeling the heat from across the party on several major issues.

Some Republicans have criticized Johnson’s moves that please conservative agitators but have no shot at becoming law in a divided government with a razor-thin House GOP majority.

Rep. Max Miller (R-Ohio), one of two Jewish Republicans in the House, openly criticized Johnson’s move of tying aid to Israel aid to IRS funding cuts as “disgusting” and a “gimmick,” Jewish Insider reported at the time, given it would be dead on arrival in the Senate — though Miller did vote for the legislation.

More moderate Republicans express frustration at the right flank’s pushes for socially conservative policies, particularly relating to abortion.

“When they try to put abortion riders in financial service [spending] bills, you’re not going to get a whole lot of support for that,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) said.

Those members are eager to avoid internal squabbles, hoping instead to focus their election-year energy on those issues where Democrats are most vulnerable, like inflation and border security. 

“Most of the people who are complaining about what we did or did not do [on spending bills] aren’t going to be part of that anyway, they’re not going to be voting for the bill,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior appropriator, leadership ally and chair of the powerful Rules Committee. 

“There’s no way we can go to where they want to go and be able to attract the Democratic support that you need. … We’ve got to find a way to piece together enough Democrats and Republicans to actually move stuff.”

Yet that hasn’t prevented the conservatives from doubling down on their efforts to hold Johnson’s feet to the fire when it comes to their demands for budget-slashing bills and other top priorities. Under Johnson, they have repeatedly prevented spending bills that do not meet their standards from coming to the House floor.

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), another one of the eight members who voted to oust McCarthy, said he views Johnson’s Speakership as “being far more, maybe, inclusive and participatory” than his predecessor’s. 

But at times, critics say, that has come at the expense of a strong legislative strategy.

“What I really want to see him do is take a position, like on FISA,” Biggs said, referencing reauthorization of the foreign surveillance law with a warrantless program that can sweep up communications of Americans while targeting foreign actors.

Johnson had aimed to bring up two competing bills to reauthorize the spy program to the House floor in an unusual procedure where the bill with the most votes wins, a strategy that infuriated conservatives — leading to the plan being scrapped, and FISA getting a short-term extension over their vocal objections.

In a press conference before the House left for a winter recess, Johnson defended allowing more time for members to work out a consensus on FISA.

“Congress is messy sometimes, but we have to get it right,” Johnson said. “We’re the greatest delivery body in the world. We’re going to do our job and do it well. Sometimes it takes more time than we would like, but it’s worth it to get it right.”

But he doesn’t have much time to reconcile the differences among the GOP’s members. Congress is sparring over how to get emergency aid to Ukraine, which some conservatives oppose outright, and the path to get Israel aid to President Biden’s desk is not clear either.

An immediate problem is funding for large parts of the government that is scheduled to expire Jan. 19 — 10 days after Congress returns to Washington from the long holiday break — followed by a Feb. 2 deadline for the remaining agencies.

From the center, Johnson is being urged to cut deals with Democrats for the sake of keeping the government open and avoiding the political fallout of a shutdown in a tough election year when control of the House is up for grabs. Yet from his right, Johnson is facing heat from conservative spending hawks demanding steep cuts in domestic programs, even if it means that parts of the government close their doors.

Some hard-liners worry Johnson has already lost leverage in the government spending battle.

“The speaker telegraphed this too early, that he might be willing to do a rest-of-the-year, fiscal year, [continuing resolution] — which doesn’t seem conservative or Republican to me,” Biggs said.

Johnson has put some of the blame for the holdup on passing more funding measures on the Senate and Democrats, as the various sides work to settle on a topline number.

“We’re awaiting the other team, the other side, the other chamber, to come forward with a number that we can agree upon, that we write to. That’s the impasse,” Johnson said.

McCarthy, who is leaving Congress at the end of the year, also critiqued Johnson’s legislative strategies on the way out the door, without naming him directly — namely the move to tie Israel aid to IRS cuts and the fact Johnson was on the sidelines as Senate Republicans aim to negotiate border policy concessions as a condition of Ukraine aid.

Even the agitators acknowledge Johnson is in no easy spot, though, after they kicked out McCarthy over their criticisms of his policy decisions.

“He was obviously dealt a very difficult hand, taking over in late October, when we’d only passed four spending bills and we’re required to pass 12, having a very narrow majority,” said Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), the incoming chair of the House Freedom Caucus who also voted to oust McCarthy.

“He’s also challenged by a House majority that hasn’t shown a concerted commitment to do the things we ran on — to force border security upon the Senate and the White House, to force spending reductions upon the Senate and the White House, and just stand with him in fighting for those by being willing to withstand a potential partial government shutdown to try to force the Democrats to negotiate,” Good said.

As the critiques of Johnson increase, though, members overwhelmingly expect him to escape any serious threat of a motion to vacate — the procedure that forced McCarthy’s ouster. McCarthy, for his part, asserts that is because the moves against him were personal.

But even though the forced change in leadership has not resulted in the exact policies they want from Johnson, those who pushed McCarty out defend the move — saying it gives a warning to leadership.

“One of the positives is that the precedent has now been set for the first time in history that at least with this group, and this slim majority: If you make repeated promises that you do not keep, you will be held accountable,” Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.) said.

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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