Mike Johnson managed to do something Kevin McCarthy couldn’t: Ignore the far-right Republicans

Whether he can do the same with Ukraine funding is another question

Eric Garcia
Washington DC
Tuesday 19 March 2024 18:11 GMT
Mike Johnson confuses Iran with Israel

On Tuesday morning, something remarkably unremarkable happened: The House and Senate Appropriations committees and congressional leadership announced they had crafted a deal to keep the government open for the rest of the fiscal year.

Congress had already passed six congressional spending bills earlier this month. But the final six were always going to be tougher to pass, specifically because of the fact that it would include funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which would give hard-right Republicans the ability to extract demands from the White House and a Democrat-controlled Senate.

Indeed, on Monday evening, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Bob Good of Virginia — who helped oust Kevin McCarthy as speaker last year — sent a letter along with 41 other conservatives to House Speaker Mike Johnson, demanding changes to immigration policy. It also demanded that the government end diversity, equity and inclusion programs at the Pentagon.

But Johnson seems to have channeled his inner Michael Corleone and responded that “my final offer is this: nothing.”

Johnson standing up to the Freedom Caucus folks who torpedoed his predecessor might surprise some people. He still has to navigate a thin majority; indeed, McCarthy’s exit at the end of the year and Ken Buck’s decision last week to leave the House means he has an even thinner margin to navigate than McCarthy himself.

Where McCarthy shifted his politics to suit the moment — going from reasonable dealmaker in his days in the California legislature to servant of Donald Trump later in his tenure — Johnson is far more ideological. He sells himself as a pious, Bible-believing Christian whose politics are an extension of his deeply conservative faith. Indeed, after he posted a picture of himself sipping a pint of Guinness out of the same glass Ronald Reagan used to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, his team quickly noted it was an alcohol-free Guinness 0. That’s a far cry from the fratty McCarthy, who enjoyed regular pizza parties, and John Boehner, who notably enjoyed his red wine with a side of cigarettes.

Nevertheless, it appears that despite being a relatively inexperienced speaker — he only joined the House in 2017 — Johnson has figured out something McCarthy learned the hard way: the hard-right of the House Republican conference will never be satisfied, no matter how many concessions he gives.

McCarthy notoriously gave away multiple concessions to the hard-right in January of last year to get the votes of House Republicans who opposed him. Most notably, he allowed for a single member to file a motion to vacate the chair and stage a no-confidence vote.

Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida, McCarthy’s nemesis, finally pulled the trigger on a motion to vacate after McCarthy collaborated with Democrats to pass a clean continuing resolution to keep the government open. And McCarthy’s needless antagonizing of Democrats — from censuring Adam Schiff to booting Ilhan Omar off the House Foreign Affairs Committee — gave Democrats no reason to save him.

Conversely, despite his strident conservatism, Johnson so far has not given Democrats any reason not to trust him. They may have been annoyed that he opposed the bipartisan immigration agreement, but it had little chance of surviving once Donald Trump, his political benefactor, opposed it.

At the same time, he’s passed three stop-gap spending bills to allow for negotiations to marinate, even as he faces criticism from Republicans. Similarly, given the fact that his own party has consistently voted down not just Republican legislation but even blocked a rule to begin allowing debate, he’s opted to mostly pass legislation under a procedure called suspension of the rules, which requires two-thirds of the House to vote on legislation without having a rule vote.

That means Johnson has mostly passed legislation that wide swathes of Democrats support. That was the case last week when he brought forward legislation to either force the sale of TikTok from ByteDance or lead to it being banned, despite Trump opposing it. It was also the case with the spending bills.

Of course, this does not mean Johnson’s speakership is fully secure. The big test will come after the spending bills are passed. Then, he will have to make a decision to either allow for a vote on a national security package that provides aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan that the Senate passed or force some pro-Ukraine Republicans to collaborate with Democrats to sign a discharge petition to bring a vote to the floor without his permission.

Many Republicans oppose supporting Ukraine. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a hard-right vocal supporter of Trump, has said she would file a motion to vacate if Johnson put a Ukraine aid bill to the floor. He will have to walk a tightrope to balance the competing needs of his conference.

But Johnson has shown his mettle this time. And while Democrats may celebrate his skills now, that manoeuvring should worry them if he keeps the gavel during a Trump presidency.

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