GOP Elder Statesmen’s Message to Johnson: Stop Dithering

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Former House speaker Paul D. Ryan said the current speaker needs to call the far-right’s bluff.

Some Republican elder statesmen are trying to send a message to House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) by urging him to make forceful decisions that will not please portions of the GOP conference.

Two early March deadlines on government funding are looming, as is the ongoing dispute over funding Ukraine’s defenses. On these and other issues, two veteran Republicans believe that the relatively new speaker has been too timid.

Johnson, who marks four months as speaker Sunday, will need to stare down far-right forces who keep threatening to oust him and instead forge the best deals possible. He can call the far right’s bluff and win, or he can continue to try to placate them, weakening himself for the long haul.

“I don’t think you can be good at these jobs unless you’re willing to lose them,” former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Wednesday during a Washington Post Live “Election 2024 Series” event, pausing to reflect on his own troubled tenure from late 2015 through 2018.

“You have to get your mind at a stage in your life and career where the best move to make could put yourself in jeopardy to losing your job, but it’s the best move to make,” Ryan said.

In a podcast also released Wednesday, Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.) delivered a more blunt assessment of Johnson’s tenure by saying that his tendency to wait so long before making a decision cuts into his leverage with Senate Democrats and President Biden. In the process, those poorly negotiated deals further empower the far-right antagonists, who have already ousted his predecessor, ex-speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), in October.

“You can either die as speaker and worry about them taking you out, or live every day as your last. Get something out of it. If you lead and get big things done, your reputation enhances. Your ability to get the next deal done is enhanced,” McHenry told CBS’s Major Garrett.

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
“The job of the speaker of the House is to serve the whole body,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, who served as interim speaker last year.

To think of Ryan, 54, and McHenry, 48, as elder statesmen will make some readers blink and reread those sentences. But in today’s House GOP – where half of the Republicans took office after Ryan retired in January 2019 – these two have been around the congressional block more than once.

Arriving in Congress six years apart, both first took office as 28-year-old renegades who sometimes drew the ire of their party’s leadership but over the years grew into respected policy experts.

Ryan chaired two influential committees and served as his party’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee before becoming speaker in his 17th year in Congress. McHenry, who announced he will retire in January after 20 years in office, chairs the House Financial Services Committee and previously spent four-and-a-half years in the critical role of chief deputy whip.

McCarthy picked McHenry as interim speaker to help elect a full-time occupant, because he commanded enough respect throughout most corners of the GOP.

Ryan tried to avoid any direct criticism of the newcomer, appreciating how John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) did not publicly critique his tenure. “Boehner didn’t do it to me. I didn’t do it to McCarthy. I don’t want to do it to Mike Johnson,” he said.

In recent weeks, McHenry’s frustration with Johnson has broken into public view, and he used appearances the past few days on the CBS podcast and at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics to air those grievances.

“We’ve thrown him into the deepest end of the pool with the heaviest weights around him and [we’re] trying to teach him how to learn to swim. It’s been a rough couple of months,” he told Garrett.

Johnson’s allies note that he is living up to the style that he promised after winning the gavel on Oct. 25.

“The job of the speaker of the House is to serve the whole body and I will, but I’ve made a commitment to my colleagues here that this speaker’s office is going to be known for decentralizing the power here,” he said then. “My office is going to be known for members being more involved and having more influence in our processes, in all the major decisions.”

Most new speakers make similar pledges to an open-door process and a bottom-up approach to decision-making – only to learn in short order that oftentimes the speaker must drive the process toward an outcome.

Johnson, so far, has not taken that approach on any big policy decision. The next few weeks will test this style more than anything he’s faced in his first four months.

On a Friday night call with GOP lawmakers to discuss plans for the first batch of bills funding about 20 percent of the federal workforce, Johnson finally conceded that very few of the ultraconservative policy riders would be included in this collection of spending bills.

“If you’re expecting a lot of home runs and grand slams here, I admit you’ll be disappointed,” Johnson told lawmakers, as The Post’s Jacob Bogage reported.

But the speaker has largely wasted three months haggling over these spending bills, which were all but certain to land in the exact spot they are now given Democratic control of the Senate and White House.

He included a couple dozen far-right Republicans in talks to make them feel listened to, even though these ideologues were almost certain to vote against these bills because they always vote against spending bills.

“All the speaker has to do is allow the Appropriations Committee to go get a deal,” McHenry said in the CBS podcast, referring to the traditionally bipartisan panel that handles funding matters.

Ryan became speaker in similar circumstances almost exactly eight years ahead of Johnson – Oct. 29, 2015 – after a group of far-right House members had threatened to force out Boehner, who instead decided to retire on his terms. In early October 2015, after McCarthy secured the nomination, he realized he still had a bloc of far-right holdouts who would leave him short of the majority vote needed to win the speakership.

So Ryan got drafted into the job and pretty soon had his own clashes with those conservative antagonists, while also frequently critiquing Donald Trump’s statements during his 2016 presidential campaign.

He feels that he only got good at the job once he accepted the fact that most big decisions would disappoint some of his members, but they would support him if Ryan could keep delivering some substantive policy wins.

“Look, I don’t have to keep this job, I didn’t ask for it in the first place, I’m just going to kind of go where I think we need to go, do what I think I need to do, and if I leave, I leave,” he recalled saying. “And once I made that switch in my mind, I was far better at this job, and I was able to just see the situation more clearly.”

Both Ryan and McHenry remain close to McCarthy and do not criticize him, but Ryan pointed to the House GOP’s drift away from conservative policy and instead into anti-woke, culture-war messaging that had more to do with pleasing conservative commentators on cable news and social media.

“This party, and this conference by extension, is led by politics, and politics is dominated by elections. And elections are literally zero-sum games,” Ryan said. “Your primary, your general election, there’s a winner and there’s a loser, and they are zero-sum games. And there’s no positive-sum outcomes.”

That dumbing down started under McCarthy, who succeeded Ryan in 2019. In four years as minority leader and nine months as speaker, McCarthy always won plaudits for political strategy but never for policy chops and, like Trump, he did not fully embrace Ryan’s traditional free-market orthodoxy.

Ryan assumes the current speaker will soon face a critical, make-or-break decision. “I think there will come a time, a moment, where he will be faced with a decision to make, and that decision will be better made if he’s just not thinking about his own personal fate,” he said.

McHenry thinks that might happen on Ukraine, which would receive about $60 billion as part of a Senate-passed $95 billion security package that also includes funds for Israel.

McHenry, a traditional GOP security hawk, said the new speaker needs to understand this legislation has overwhelming support – “perhaps a two-thirds majority.”

“The speaker, or leadership in the House, can only resist a majority in the House for so long. You can suspend reality or suspend gravity as speaker of the House for a period of time, but not permanently,” he told students at the University of Chicago.

McHenry believes that Johnson, who is facing threats from Trump’s far-right allies opposed to Ukraine funding, has to understand that he does not have the gravitas as speaker to permanently block this security funding.

If he does not relent, traditional Republicans will resort to extraordinary measures, such as joining Democrats in a discharge petition that will simply force a vote in an embarrassing fashion for the speaker.

“It may take a few twists and turns,” McHenry said. “My hope is that my Republican leadership will make the right decision, put it on the floor for a vote, and when they do that, it will pass and it’ll pass by a wide majority.”