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GOP Blues

Mike Johnson Repeats Kevin McCarthy’s Mistake: Trying to Govern

With only a few weeks left in the year and several items on the agenda, Johnson may need to assuage skeptical Republicans.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
House Speaker Mike Johnson (left) with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

House Speaker Mike Johnson’s honeymoon period lasted about as long as an actual honeymoon: a few weeks, at best. Now that Congress has punted its most intransigent problem—keeping the government funded—to early next year, Johnson must shepherd several other complex agenda items through the fractious chamber with a whisper-thin majority that may become even slimmer by Friday afternoon. The frisson of the new relationship has waned, and some House Republicans are beginning to grumble about their new leader’s tactics.

Johnson told Senate Republicans this week that he would support a continuing resolution to keep the government funded at current levels through the end of the fiscal year in 2024 if both chambers of Congress can’t reach a new spending agreement. This is anathema to some House hard-liners; Johnson’s predecessor, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, was ousted in part due to his willingness to treat with the Biden administration on the debt ceiling and on a top-line number for government funding. GOP Representative Max Miller slammed Johnson, in an interview with Politico this week, calling him a “joke.”

“If you believe some of the more vocal [representatives], that grace period is over, if there was one,” said Representative Kevin Hern, who supports Johnson. GOP Representative Glenn Thompson, who said that Johnson is doing a “great job,” also joked that “I don’t think anyone has much of a honeymoon period around here.”

Democrats in the House—dealing with their own ideological differences on issues such as aid to Israel—have gleefully pointed to conservative GOP discontent. In a recent press conference, Democratic leaders cited Representative Chip Roy, who tore into his fellow Republicans in a fiery floor speech in November, chastising them for not forcing a government shutdown to earn policy concessions.

“I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing—one—that I can go campaign on and say we did,” Roy said. “Anybody sitting in the complex, if you want to come down to the floor and come explain to me one meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done besides, ‘Well, I guess it’s not as bad as the Democrats.’”

It’s not all bad news for Johnson: Representative Scott Perry, the chair of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, acknowledged this week that Republicans would need to agree to the top-line government spending number Biden set with McCarthy—the same one that helped several hard-liners to topple the then speaker. This offers breathing room for Johnson, even as it adds injury to insult for McCarthy. However, Perry also railed against “side deals” of additional nondiscretionary funding, the agreements that helped Democrats and the White House consent to the bargain in the first place.

“No more gimmicks: Most of the House voted for it; most of the Senate voted for it. That’s where we have to be,” Perry said.

However, if members of Congress are unable to reach an appropriations agreement, funding the government through the end of the fiscal year through a continuing resolution could frustrate the Republican members who are giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt.

“He has some runway. I think, just like Kevin McCarthy, the challenge before him is that we have to show the American public that we’re worthy of representation by getting things done,” said GOP Representative Ryan Zinke. However, he continued, “having the same policies without curbing the spending in a longer [continuing resolution] would be a significant error.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean that passing a long-term measure to keep the government funded at current levels would result in Johnson’s ouster, however. “A lot of what happened with Kevin McCarthy … seemed to be personal. And it’s different dynamics with Speaker Johnson,” Thompson said.

Meanwhile, the four-seat majority Republicans hold may be about to shrink. The House will vote on whether to expel GOP Representative George Santos on Friday, after a scorching report by the House Ethics Committee outlined several allegations of fraud and ethics violations. He represents a swing district on Long Island so his replacement may be a Democrat, narrowing the GOP majority even further.

Santos, who also faces a litany of federal charges, has vociferously denied any wrongdoing and has refused to step down. He is likely to become only the sixth lawmaker ever to be expelled from the House. Some Republicans opposed his ouster, noting that he has not yet been convicted of any of the alleged crimes, but likely not enough to save him.

The intraparty GOP dissension is not restricted to the House. In the Senate, a small group of bipartisan lawmakers are struggling to reach a consensus on an immigration deal, which would be attached to a larger package with aid to Ukraine and Israel. As a large proportion of Republicans in the House, and a not insignificant number in the Senate, have grown skeptical about assisting Ukraine in its war with Russia, GOP senators have insisted that they will not pass the funding package without immigration and border policy changes.

But even if such a complex agreement could be reached, Johnson warned Senate Republicans this week that he may not be able to pass such a measure through the House. In a post on X on Thursday morning, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene—a far-right Republican whose hard-line views increasingly reflect the party’s mainstream—said that she disagreed with “Speaker Johnson’s plan to fund Ukraine in exchange for border policy wins.”

“Democrats will never enforce our strong secure border policies, they would just use them as a win at the polls. And Ukraine is a losing war racked with corruption that a majority of Americans do not support,” Greene wrote. “This is a bad strategy.”

However, Representative Tim Burchett—one of the eight Republicans who voted with all Democrats to oust McCarthy—said he was heartened by Johnson’s Senate negotiations.

“I think we actually are enjoying the fact that he has a process in these negotiations. He’s not checking with the lobbyists, he’s checking with the members,” Burchett told me. “I think he’s doing very well with the Senate and the president.”

Senator Thom Tillis, one of the Republicans working to negotiate an immigration deal, argued that passing a large supplemental bill through the House is not a problem for the Senate.

“What we need to do is come up with a solution to border security that will get more than half of the Republicans in the Senate, and then Speaker Johnson and my colleagues on the House side can figure out how they can get the votes together or send us something back,” Tillis said. “I don’t want them solving my problems, nor would I want to solve theirs. And quite honestly, I think our problems are a little bit more solvable right now than theirs.

GOP Senator Ted Cruz, who is himself no stranger to being a thorn in his party leadership’s side, sympathized with Johnson.

“[Johnson] is smart, he’s principled, but the job in which he’s serving is incredibly difficult,” Cruz said. “The analogy is frequently invoked of herding cats, and in some ways, that’s not fair to the cats.”