Mike Johnson (center), flanked by Reps. Steve Scalise (left) and Tom Emmer (right), departs a press conference. Johnson and his team are offering private reassurances to rattled rank-and-file Republicans that he didn’t concede anything to conservatives. | Francis Chung/POLITICO
Speaker Mike Johnson’s grip on his fractious conference slipped this week after he struck a government funding deal with Democrats — antagonizing the same Republicans who led the ouster of Kevin McCarthy.
Now, not even three months in the job, Johnson is facing a decision that promises to shape his speakership going forward: whether to give in to yet another conservative rebellion and scrap the bipartisan deal, or to hold firm and further anger his right flank. After temporarily freezing up the House floor on Wednesday, hardliners came back Thursday and insisted that the Louisiana Republican ditch the agreement.
No Republicans are seriously considering a quick push to oust Johnson — but that could change at any moment.
And his choice on the spending deal, which is expected next week, will have serious consequences. If Johnson reneges on his accord with Senate Democrats, he would send Washington on a fast track to a partial shutdown that would kick in on Jan. 20. He’d also lose major face with the less vocal majority of House Republicans who can live with his agreement to fund the government largely under the terms that McCarthy agreed to last year.
“We understand we’re in divided government and handed Mike a bad hand when we asked him to become speaker after 10 weeks of whatever that was,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), referring to this past fall’s lengthy House paralysis, including McCarthy’s removal from the speakership.
Armstrong, once a stalwart McCarthy ally, predicted that the topline deal will ultimately remain the same, and there will be “a tremendous amount of pushback from the rest of the conference” to Freedom Caucus members’ attempts to get Johnson to abandon it.
House Republicans’ predicament stems in part from the degree to which they’re still reliving the past — namely, McCarthy’s firing. Different corners of the conference offer wildly different views of the debt deal that McCarthy cut with President Joe Biden last year. While some prominent conservatives
praised it at the time, most hardliners now insist that McCarthy’s failure to secure still more cuts ensured his ouster as speaker.
Other Republicans argue that McCarthy’s willingness to entertain lofty, ultimately unworkable conservative demands for steep spending cuts lost him the gavel, not the debt deal itself. At the same time, hardliners are feeling increasingly emboldened to play hardball and try to bend the rest of the House to their will, believing that their party has a political advantage if they go all-in on a shutdown fight over the border.
If Johnson tries the same path his predecessor took and gives oxygen to the right flank’s push for more cuts or stricter border policies, he’ll find himself in the same hopeless position that the now-retired ex-speaker did. Most of his members would prefer he stop trying to satisfy a small faction of the House GOP that typically doesn’t support spending bills, anyway.
“Renegotiating for the purposes of appeasing a group of people — 100 percent of whom you’re not going to have, in my opinion — could be a flawed strategy,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) said.
Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio), another appropriator, warned that “shutting down the country … never really gets any goals truly accomplished.”
Johnson and his team are offering private reassurances to rattled rank-and-file Republicans that he didn’t concede anything to conservatives, according to two GOP lawmakers who have spoken to leadership since conservatives crowed that they were pressuring him to back down. And he’s made clear to Republicans in several meetings this week that he doesn’t see how they gain more political leverage in a shutdown.
Meanwhile, allies are privately and publicly urging him to stand by the government funding deal, one of the year’s first tests of his ability to secure the sort of bipartisan pacts he’ll need to make throughout the year.
Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), in a brief interview, said he is privately urging leadership to “remain strong.”
“This is the best deal we’re going to get. They are dumb to think otherwise,” Bacon said of the hardliners. “They are impossible.”
And even some of the group that were part of Thursday’s meeting to try to negotiate an alternate deal, acknowledged that their effort will likely fall short.
“I expect that you’ll see more of the same here in Washington, D.C.,” said Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.), predicting that it is “likely” Johnson will keep the bipartisan deal.
House Republican appropriators are among the most vocal advocates for Johnson to stick to the bipartisan spending deal, proving he can work in divided government at the start of a critical election year. Following through on the funding agreement is critical to demonstrating Johnson’s integrity, they argue.
“In life, you can’t break your word,” said Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a senior Republican appropriator. “Everything is dependent on your honor. You can’t break that. You just can’t break that. Because that would make you totally incapable of negotiating anything, ever.”
Even the conservatives leading the pushback openly doubt that Johnson will get quickly targeted with an ouster vote if he sticks to his agreement with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Given the GOP’s shaky majority and Democrats’ unified performance during the McCarthy eviction, it’s conceivable that an effort to remove Johnson could backfire and result in a Speaker Hakeem Jeffries.
Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), one of the conservatives pushing Johnson to revoke the spending deal, even praised Johnson’s overall performance and said a so-called motion to vacate, the process to remove a speaker, is “not going to happen.”
“We trust what he says, which is a different day from Kevin McCarthy,” Norman said.
If Johnson pushes ahead with the terms of the funding accord, he can count on some Democratic help getting a final funding package over the finish line. Should he side with conservatives, however, Johnson is almost certainly on his own. Jeffries has already warned the speaker that Democrats won’t support any alternative to the deal he already endorsed, according to Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.).
“Hakeem has basically laid down the gauntlet that ‘if you do anything other than what was negotiated, I will not help you,’” Hern said.
Across the Capitol, most Republican senators support the Schumer-Johnson deal, but even they praised Johnson’s handling of a difficult situation — saying that he’s trying to extract the most conservative victories possible amid divided government.
“Johnson is trying really hard,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), a senior appropriator. “He’s trying really hard to do exactly what their folks want, which is fund government, but at a lower level.”
Olivia Beavers and Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this report.