How Mike Johnson holds a fractured GOP together ahead of key spending vote

How Mike Johnson holds a fractured GOP together ahead of key spending vote

It’s hard to overstate how steep Mike Johnson’s learning curve has been since taking over as speaker of the House five months ago.

“When you’re in uncharted waters, as we are – dark skies on the horizon and all that – you have to know where the fixed points on the horizon are,” said the Louisiana conservative. That means sticking to what he calls America’s foundational principles, from fiscal responsibility to “peace through strength.”

Why We Wrote This

The House speakership has always been a prime post of power. Now, due to Republicans’ slim majority and battles within their ranks, Speaker Mike Johnson’s job is also riding a vortex.

Speaker Johnson’s ability to keep the ship – whether it’s his speakership, the Republican Party, or Congress itself – from running aground is being put to its biggest test this week. A 1,012-page bill with $1.2 trillion in government funding awaits approval from both the House and Senate before 12 a.m. on Saturday, or much of the government will shut down.

If Mr. Johnson succeeds in getting it through and survives, it will mark a substantial achievement for the rookie speaker, who’s managed to hold his fractious party together even as discontent simmers beneath the surface. Supporters credit the new speaker’s calm disposition and willingness to listen.

“I’m hard-pressed to see who could do it better,” says Doug Heye, a former GOP leadership aide.

If Americans were asked to pick the Speaker of the House out of a lineup, few would likely point to the short man in horn-rimmed glasses staring at the floor and pursing his lips.

Even Mike Johnson himself sometimes looks as if he can’t quite believe he’s the most powerful politician in the U.S. House of Representatives. When preparing to brief reporters, he can often be seen taking a deep breath, lifting his chin, and putting on a dignified expression – as he did Wednesday, when House GOP leadership gathered for a press conference ahead of yet another potential government shutdown.

Asked to expound upon his first five months on the job, the Louisianan chose a hurricane metaphor.

Why We Wrote This

The House speakership has always been a prime post of power. Now, due to Republicans’ slim majority and battles within their ranks, Speaker Mike Johnson’s job is also riding a vortex.

“When you’re in choppy seas, when you’re in uncharted waters, as we are – dark skies on the horizon and all that – you have to know where the fixed points on the horizon are,” he said. That means sticking to what he calls America’s foundational principles, from fiscal responsibility to “peace through strength.”

Speaker Johnson’s ability to keep the ship – whether it’s his speakership, the Republican Party, or Congress itself – from running aground is being put to its biggest test yet this week. A 1,012-page bill with $1.2 trillion in government funding awaits approval from both the House and Senate before 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, or much of the government will shut down. 

If Mr. Johnson gets it through and survives, it will mark a substantial achievement for the rookie speaker, who has managed to hold his fractured party together even as discontent simmers beneath the surface.

He has already reluctantly approved four stopgap spending measures, three more than the one that triggered his predecessor’s removal. His party’s majority is down to a two-vote margin. Meanwhile, the national debt is growing by nearly $100,000 a second, and the right has been demanding cuts.

In some ways, the new speaker had little room to maneuver – but neither did his rebel flank. With Democrats controlling the Senate and White House, Mr. Johnson had to compromise. And while that rankled hardline Republicans, even they have shown little appetite for a shutdown, or for a repeat of the weeks-long crisis that ensued after they abruptly ousted former Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Still, there is no guarantee that the untested Mr. Johnson can continue to keep things from going off the rails. For now, supporters credit the new speaker’s calm disposition and willingness to listen.

“I’m hard pressed to see who could do it better,” says Doug Heye, a former GOP leadership aide.

Veteran Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who chairs the influential Rules committee, goes further. Given the circumstances, he says, Speaker Johnson is doing remarkably well.

“I’m very proud of what he’s been able to do,” says Chairman Cole. “He’s in a more secure position than most people seem to think.” 

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP

GOP Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, shown at a House Rules Committee hearing in the U.S. Capitol Dec. 12, 2023, says Speaker Johnson has had fewer “carrots and sticks” to use as leverage with his members than his predecessor.

Learning on the job

It’s hard to overstate how steep Mike Johnson’s learning curve has been.

“He went from moving at 5 m.p.h. to 100 m.p.h. very, very quickly,” says a one-time aide to former GOP Speaker John Boehner. While rank-and-file members of Congress may face a handful of consequential decisions over the course of a term, the speaker faces numerous ones every day – with constant scrutiny not only from the press but from fellow members.

A key question has been how to handle a group of about 20 conservatives, mostly but not entirely from the House Freedom Caucus, who have pushed hard to rein in spending and change the way the House does business. 

They have repeatedly engaged in what GOP Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, once considered among the most rebellious of House Republicans, dubs “procedural violence” to stymie their own party leaders. 

Former Speaker McCarthy, whose prodigious fundraising and indefatigable stumping for GOP candidates helped his party win back the House in 2022, arguably had more leverage over his caucus, including the ability to make committee appointments. Mr. Johnson, who took over in October has had fewer bargaining chips.

“He doesn’t have carrots or sticks,” says Representative Massie. “It’s like having a substitute teacher and the class figuring out they can kind of push the teacher around.”

Democrats say the House under Mr. Johnson’s leadership has been “a mess” and “much more chaotic” than under Mr. McCarthy – a state of affairs that has greatly reduced the chamber’s ability to pass legislation on behalf of Americans around the country. As of January, this two-year Congress was on track to pass the fewest number of bills since the Great Depression.

“They are so busy fighting with themselves, aligning with the most extreme members of their conference, that the American people are left out of the picture,” says Democratic Whip Katherine Clark of Massachusetts. 

The frustration over budgets 

For years, conservatives have been unhappy about the budget process, which members on both sides of the aisle agree has broken down. One big sticking point has been the reliance on stop-gap funding measures, which continue funding the government temporarily at previously agreed levels – in this fiscal year, that means levels set by the previous Democratic majority. A second is the last-minute cramming of multiple appropriation bills into a single larger bill, called an omnibus or minibus. A third is failure to allow sufficient opportunity to review or amend spending bills. 

A key rule change conservatives won last year was restoring the 72-hour review period for legislation – a rule Speaker Johnson will have to waive in order to pass the funding package by Friday at midnight, since the text was only released at 3 a.m. on Thursday.

This “minibus”  includes funding for the departments of Labor, Education, Treasury, and Homeland Security. The last proved the thorniest in negotiations, as border security and immigration has become the No. 1 election issue. Among the provisions are a 25% increase in border technology spending and half a billion dollars to hire 22,000 more Border Patrol agents, as well as 12,000 special visas to bring Afghan former interpreters for the U.S. military and their families to the U.S.

Speaker Johnson speaks with GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington (center) and Democratic Rep. Al Green of Texas (left) before the State of the Union address.

Speaker Johnson shares many conservative principles with the Freedom Caucus. But he has taken issue with their tactics. And he appears to have concluded that he doesn’t need their support to get this funding passed. So far, there has not been any serious talk of a move to oust him by bringing a “motion to vacate” the speaker’s chair, as Rep. Matt Gaetz did with Mr. McCarthy.

A listener who can also be unbending

Observers say that goes to show that the real issue with Mr. McCarthy was personal; Mr. Johnson, by contrast, is generally well-liked and trusted. 

“He doesn’t act like the smartest person in the room,” says GOP Budget committee chair Jodey Arrington of Texas, a friend. “But his mind, his character, and his leadership qualities are huge.” Foundational to his approach, adds Mr. Arrington, is the speaker’s deep Christian faith and a sense of peace and purpose derived from feeling called to take on this role.  

Democrats credit Mr. Johnson for his civility, but they express deep concerns about the extent to which he – a constitutional lawyer who earlier in his career advocated against abortion and same-sex marriage – brings his religious views into his work in Congress. Others describe him as unbending in his views. 

“He has a gentility to him, but he also has a rigid perspective on history,” says Rep. Deborah Ross, a North Carolina Democrat who served with him on the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution and said they couldn’t have been further apart on the issue of voting rights.

Among conservatives, the criticism is not personal but focused on negotiating tactics and procedure. 

“We could have fought harder to achieve the objectives we set out to achieve,” says Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, a Freedom Caucus leader, who nevertheless calls the speaker “a good man, a good friend.”

One huge missed opportunity, says Mr. Massie, was not leveraging a provision Mr. McCarthy had secured in a deal he struck with the White House last summer, which would cut the budget by 1% if a funding deal wasn’t agreed to by April 30. That would have enabled the GOP to negotiate with Democrats not against the threat of a shutdown – which can be politically detrimental – but against the threat of a 1% cut that passed into law with strong Democratic support.

Up next: U.S. role in global security

The pressure won’t let up anytime soon. If Mr. Johnson gets the budget passed – albeit nearly halfway through the fiscal year – his next challenge will be figuring out what to do about aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, which President Joe Biden requested as a package last fall. To many lawmakers, it’s an existential security issue –and one he should be willing to take a stand for even if it costs him his job.

“I’m imploring him to be decent and honest and do the right thing for funding our government and protecting democracies around the world,” says Democratic Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, who served with Mr. Johnson on the Armed Services committee. “I know him to have a good character, and I believe that he should be the speaker for all of us and not just the speaker for the Republican Party.”

Multiple Democrats interviewed for this story said he didn’t appear interested in listening to them or their party. But Rep. Robert Aderholt, an Alabama freshman who chairs one of the Appropriations subcommittees, says when he has brought concerns to Mr. Johnson, the speaker is always ready to listen. 

“He’s never been dismissive,” says Representative Aderholt, adding that the concerns he voiced about one appropriations bill were ultimately resolved. 

“The best speaker is a good listener, and Mike Johnson definitely has that ability,” the former Boehner aide says, adding: “I think this could have gone sideways in any number of ways.”

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