New Speaker Mike Johnson holds favor with conservatives. Can he unite the GOP where others failed?

Oct 28, 2023, 5:21 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — New House Speaker Mike Johnson inherits many of the same problems that bedeviled Republican leaders with far more experience. At least for now, however, he holds favor with the ultra-conservative wing of his party that toppled previous House speakers. But can he unite House Republicans where others failed?

The Louisiana Republican emerged last week from the lower ranks of the House GOP leadership to ascend to speaker after lawmakers, driven by a faction of hard-liners, ousted Rep. Kevin McCarthy from the job and then rejected two more top-ranked Republicans in leadership as well as conservative favorite Rep. Jim Jordan.

To his supporters, Johnson represented a turn to “decentralizing the power” from the speaker’s office, with a goal of cutting government spending and engaging forcefully on socially conservative priorities.

“The greatest threat to our national security is our nation’s debt,” Johnson said in a speech after taking the gavel.

While not a member of the hard-charging House Freedom Caucus, Johnson is seen by Republicans as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative unlike previous speakers such as McCarthy, R-Calif., or former Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio.

An evangelical Christian who often cites the Bible, Johnson worked as an attorney for anti-abortion and Christian groups before running for office. During his four terms in the House, he has led an ardently conservative caucus called the Republican Study Committee. He also spearheaded a legal effort, championed by then-President Donald Trump, that sought to overturn the 2020 election results in key states that the Republican incumbent lost to Democrat Joe Biden.

Johnson’s role in the Trump-backed lawsuit quickly became a rallying point for Republicans, who vigorously booed a reporter’s question about that election on the night that the congressman became nominee for speaker. On the House floor, many cheered when Democrats said Johnson was an architect of the objections to the 2020 results.

Trump, who is running for a second White House term, enthusiastically backed Johnson and said he will be “a fantastic speaker.” Trump’s allies saw Johnson’s rise as a chance to give renewed rigor to their efforts to impeach Biden.

“I think Mike Johnson will approach this like a lawyer and like a tactician, not like a California lottery winner,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, taking a swipe at how McCarthy once won $5,000 from a lotto ticket. Gaetz, R-Fla., was the leader of the band of Republicans who ousted McCarthy.

But Johnson faces the same questions that vexed McCarthy: How to patch together a slim Republican majority wracked by feuding? How to keep the government funded and open for business? Does Congress provide more wartime aid for Ukraine?

McCarthy had years of experience in leadership to help deal with such challenges. In the end, though, he could not unite Republicans. He failed to corral Republicans for vital legislation and his decision to rely on Democrats to help pass a short-term measure that prevented a federal shutdown gave hard-line conservatives a justification for removing McCarthy as speaker.

Gaetz said Johnson has “a lot more credibility” with conservatives than McCarthy did, even if the new speaker pushes a stopgap government funding plan to give Republicans more time to pass individual spending bills. There is a Nov. 17 deadline to approve legislation that would keep government agencies operating.

Resolving the spending fight with a longer-term bill will require Johnson to negotiate with the Democratic-run Senate and White House, and many key figures will be working with him for the first time.

Even Republicans in the Senate said they had to look up the basics of Johnson’s profile when they heard he had been elected speaker.

Johnson has no prior working relationship with Biden. In a Fox News interview this past week, Johnson said he had met the president just once before Thursday, when he was invited to the White House to discuss Biden’s aid request for Israel and Ukraine, as well as U.S.-Mexico border money and humanitarian assistance for Palestinians.

In the interview, the new speaker promised an adversarial relationship with the president, saying he and Biden agree “on almost no policy.” Johnson spoke favorably of potentially impeaching Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

But Johnson’s most immediate tasks — the aid request and the funding negotiations — will require bipartisanship.

The House Republican Conference is deeply divided on those issues. Some members are already looking to leverage the prospect of a government shutdown to force the Senate to take up their proposals on immigration restrictions and border security.

Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican who is a vocal member of the House Freedom Caucus, said he was willing to consider a stopgap funding bill but only if it was “tactical versus a punt.”

Yet House Republicans last month failed to pass a funding proposal Roy helped design that would have cut the budgets of some agencies by up to 30% while enacting a slew of conservative border priorities. The intractability of many House Republicans forced McCarthy to turn to Democrats for help in keeping the government running.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Texas Democrat, said the stances of some conservatives mean that any speaker “will end up in exactly the same place as former Speaker McCarthy did: Needing Democratic votes.”

The dynamics remain the same for Johnson, but may be even more daunting after lawmakers spent the last three weeks arguing over who should be McCarthy’s successor.

Personal tensions are making their way onto the floor of the House, which had not considered legislation for three weeks. Several bills to censure House members could soon see a vote, and New York Republicans have moved to force a vote on expelling their GOP colleague, Rep. George Santos, as he faces criminal prosecution.

Johnson suggested that the effort to expel Santos for allegedly defrauding his political donors and constituents should be suppressed, but that is unlikely to satisfy moderate Republicans who are growing weary of the dysfunction in the party.

Some lawmakers remain upset after they received threats for refusing to support Jordan, the Ohio congressman who was the conservative’s first choice for speaker. They say Jordan’s House allies bear some responsibility for the vitriol.

“Some people are in denial that they’re somewhat responsible for this,” said Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican who received threats for refusing to vote for Jordan.

Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican who is focused on cutting government spending, urged the new speaker to quickly pass his priorities.

“Mike Johnson has a grace period here where it’ll be at least 30 days before we get stabby again,” he said.

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New Speaker Mike Johnson holds favor with conservatives. Can he unite the GOP where others failed?