House Speaker Mike Johnson attends a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 5, 2023. Credit - Drew Angerer—Getty Images
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If House Republicans were forced to vote today on who should lead them, it’s widely accepted on Capitol Hill that Mike Johnson would find it tough to keep his unenviable job as House Speaker. Put simply: the honeymoon is over, the troublemakers who made his promotion possible are losing patience, and the GOP caucus remains as ungovernable as ever.
All of which adds up to this tough truth: a partial government shutdown could be triggered on Jan. 19, with a complete collapse looming on Feb. 2. And the people who made Johnson’s speakership possible are rooting for House Republicans to preside over a total meltdown of government. It might be the natural conclusion of a right-wing movement kindled in the first months after Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 and which reached a roar during a deadly riot in the last weeks of the Trump administration, and now finds itself with little to do but cheer on destruction in the Biden era.
It’s been two months since a klatch of House Republicans forced the ouster of then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy because, frankly, they didn’t like him. One voted against him because she didn’t think he had women’s rights in mind. Another kicked him to the curb because he thought McCarthy had mocked his faith. Others said they found him duplicitous and wobbly on conservative goals. After all, McCarthy had dared to strike a deal with Democrats earlier in the year to keep the lights on. In the end, those eight rabble-rousers booted McCarthy after just nine months with the gavel, turning themselves into a kind of veto-wielding super-minority in a chamber where the Republican margins are epicly narrow.
After 22 days of deliberations, 14 candidates, four nominees and three public floor votes, Johnson got the top gig in the House in October. The little-known-beyond-Louisiana conservative weathered a rough few weeks as the public—and many of his colleagues—discovered that he was far more aligned with the evangelical, hard-right flank of the GOP than they had realized. But, in those first few weeks, a lot of conservatives held their tongues as Johnson got his sea legs and started to show what kind of figure he would be as he clutched the gavel.
So what has Johnson got done so far? In the middle of an international crisis, he tried to leverage a request for aid to Israel to score cuts to the IRS budget that will likely never get a vote in the Senate let alone President Joe Biden’s signature into law. He released carefully selected footage from Jan. 6, and then said he was blurring the faces of rioters to protect them from prosecution. And he has fast-tracked impeaching the President despite thin evidence to date—but, hey, a formal vote calendared for next week to allow subpoenas is propped up behind a snazzy logo. All that’s missing is theme music.
Yet none of that has solved the problems that McCarthy found himself ill-equipped to solve. The structural deficiencies that fueled Johnson’s improbable rise to the lush Speaker’s office remain. It’s like Goldilocks doesn’t have just three bowls of porridge in front of her at the moment; she has an entire oatmeal factory that no one knew existed.
And that’s why the Speaker of a Republican House may very well be the worst prize in D.C. If America’s Shakespeare, Stephen Sondheim, were still with us, he’d be writing Johnson as a modern Nellie Lovett from Sweeney Todd: a cannibalistic opportunist. There’s a problem with that analogy, though: Mrs. Lovett had buy-in from her co-conspirators in a way that the hopelessly divided House Republicans would never offer Johnson, just like they didn’t McCarthy.
Which begs the question: How are you finding the gavel, Mr. Speaker?
Along with avoiding a government shutdown, Republicans are returning to Washington this week with a pressing to-do list, including requests for billions in aid for Israel and Ukraine. And yet nothing seems to be moving any better now than it was in the McCarthy era. And for those not rooting for a shutdown in the new year, the fact that there is so little ink on paper at this hour when it comes to a spending bill should worry even the most optimistic lawmaker. Johnson is sticking with the parameters negotiated between the Biden White House and Speaker McCarthy’s office, including topline spending of $1.59 trillion through next Oct. 1. While the far-right Freedom Caucus seems to have made peace with that, some holdout conservatives are still demanding that number be cut to $1.47 trillion. That delta is one of the reasons some GOP lawmakers are starting to sour on Johnson.
Not helping matters is Johnson’s decision last week to lock arms with George Santos before a two-thirds majority of the House chose to expel him from the chamber, a dicey vote that left swing-district Republicans in a lurch.
Meanwhile, Democrats are missing no opportunity to highlight the myriad ways that Johnson and like-minded Republicans are afield from both national sentiment—religion and abortion being central to this askew position—and party orthodoxy. And, golly, has it been good for fundraising even before Johnson seized the gavel: national Democrats have enjoyed the upper hand this cycle and show no sign of slowing down against a new Speaker who arrived on the job lacking a network of well-heeled donors conditioned to give.
Privately, lawmakers are grousing that Johnson is embracing his “four-corner” role—that is representing all House Republicans in the closed-door conversations with House Democrats’ top hand and the two parties’ leaders from the Senate. Which, if we are being honest, is what he should be doing. Yes, party leaders in both chambers and in both shades of jersey should be playing to win. At the same time, they need to be working to make sure their members aren’t getting dinged as party hacks. But what is a leader’s job when his members want to be branded as hacks? To his credit, Johnson isn’t playing along thus far. Still, with every moment of sober responsibility, he’s endangering the vocal minority of his slim majority who want to be seen as arsonists. Privately, the fringe adults in his caucus are appreciative of the level-headed approach. But there’s a reason that appreciation is being expressed privately. The burn-it-down caucus is much more upfront about their intentions.
There’s a reason none of the last three Republican Speakers ended their tenures on their own terms. House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan took the hint and exited early; McCarthy failed to read the room and was forcibly removed. Johnson isn’t quite at that point but he may have already lost his chance to show he can lead his caucus with anything approaching unity. And, once again, House Republicans seem to be readying the moment when they will incinerate one of their own over disagreements that are not easily distilled to easy-to-understand conversations in the districts that will decide the balance of power come early 2025. The fight is entirely one of Washington’s making, and only the insiders understand why Republicans can’t stifle internal dissent at a moment when Americans are looking at D.C. with disbelief that this is really how the country is being run.
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Write to Philip Elliott at email@example.com.