Weakened House GOP Majority Reckons with Johnson’s Leadership

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) will be trying to govern with a shrinking majority.

Less than six months after a faction of House Republicans led a revolt that removed Kevin McCarthy from the speakership, more Republicans are already complaining about the party’s direction and questioning whether his replacement, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), is the right person for the job.

The complaints picked up after the House passage Friday of a $1.2 trillion funding bill, and they are familiar ones for the chamber, similar to those that had been lodged against McCarthy (Calif.): Both men have relied on Democrats to pass key funding bills in the narrowly divided chamber and have bypassed rules in order to move the legislative process along more quickly when facing key legislative deadlines.

The speed of their disenchantment with Johnson is a reminder of the difficulty of leading the restive Republican caucus, which has been shrinking because of member departures. On Friday, Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin announced he would resign next month to join the private sector, leaving Johnson with just one vote to spare to get measures passed on party lines.

At the same time, the Republican Party faces deep divisions over how to handle major policy issues and whether to ever work with Democrats.

Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus have already admonished Johnson as a weak leader who they believe does not fight back in negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“Mike was wrong,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), who vehemently opposed his right-flank peers’ effort to oust McCarthy last year, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday, describing Johnson’s approach to steering a $1.2 trillion funding bill that passed the House 286 to 134 on Friday, with the support of 185 Democrats and 101 Republicans.

The majority of House GOP members – 112 – voted against it, meaning it only passed because of Democratic support, a source of tension for many conservative members.

Johnson, Roy said, did not give House Republicans the 72 hours required by the rules negotiated by the party’s most conservative members to review the measure, which passed the Senate early Saturday and was swiftly signed by President Biden, averting a partial shutdown of the government.

Roy also insisted that the speaker should have forced a continuing resolution to keep the government funded at current levels while House Republicans continued pushing for further border funding and budget cuts in the final bills. (Roy and other Freedom Caucus members had said publicly that they would vote against the package even if Johnson had followed the 72-hour rule, and they had condemned and routinely voted against continuing resolutions, including some that included House Republicans’ border security proposal.)

“It is what it is. It’s a very difficult job for the speaker,” Roy conceded. “I knew I wouldn’t get everything I wanted. But you know what I wanted? I wanted some sense of sanity on spending, some sense of sanity on the border, some sense of sanity on any of the issues the American people actually care about. And we got none of that.”

Johnson, for his part, called the agreement passed on Friday “the best achievable outcome in a divided government,” pointing out conservative policy wins.

The bill package secured on Friday funds about three-quarters of the federal government for the next six months, while also raising military pay, eliminating U.S. funding for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, and bolstering security at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Despite the sharp criticism, Republicans so far seem reluctant to try to push Johnson out of office like they did with McCarthy, potentially giving Johnson time to shore up his support.

Before the funding package passed the House, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a far-right member, filed a motion to vacate the speakership over opposition to the bill – the same legislative procedure that had been used to remove McCarthy.

But Greene characterized the motion as “more of a warning” to Johnson and has not committed to a timeline for a vote. The soonest her effort could be addressed is after the House returns next month from a two-week recess, and the resolution probably won’t be considered unless Greene introduces it under “privilege.” That tactic would force a House vote on Johnson’s future within 48 hours.

Over the weekend, Republicans appeared dismissive of Greene’s effort, signaling that they were not yet compelled to remove him from speakership. Lawmakers said that the calculus to consider whether to remove Johnson now is markedly different from what it was when more than 200 Democrats and eight Republicans ousted McCarthy last year.

“We don’t need dysfunction right now with the world on fire the way it is,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CBS News on Sunday. “We need to govern, and that is not just for Republicans but in a bipartisan way.”

Greene’s threat may become more pressing next month when Johnson asks the House to approve additional funding for foreign allies and border security. She has repeatedly said that she would press a motion to vacate if Johnson put a Ukraine funding bill to the floor, a policy Greene and many other far-right members vehemently oppose.

In his interview with CNN, Roy dismissed questions on Greene’s motion to vacate as “Beltway palace drama” and insisted that Republicans should focus instead on their priorities, including cutting the debt and funding Israel.

The divisions that continue to plague the fractious conference are the latest examples of frustration for House Republicans.

Data from GovTrack reviewed by The Washington Post last month indicated that the current Congress had enacted about 7 percent of the legislation that the legislative body has enacted on average since the 1973-74 session. Efforts to continue funding the federal government have repeatedly teetered on the brink of funding deadlines, largely due to resistance from the far-right flank. A GOP-led impeachment inquiry into Biden is sputtering out.

This Congress has had the smallest Republican majority in decades – and it’s shrinking. Gallagher’s retirement, announced last week, will make it even more difficult for Johnson to govern by simply relying on Republican votes.

It’s unclear how much political capital Johnson will need in bringing the conference on board to approve aid for Ukraine. While the Senate has passed a $95 billion bipartisan national security package – which includes several billion in aid to support Ukraine, assist Israel and combat Chinese military aggression in the Indo-Pacific – Johnson has faced pressure from fellow Republicans to halt Ukraine aid efforts until border security-related funding is included.

Roy said Sunday that Johnson would face more difficulty if he pressed ahead with a vote on the measure.

Some Democrats, meanwhile, have since signaled publicly that they would come to Johnson’s aid to keep him in leadership if he brings Ukraine funding up for a vote.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Sunday morning told CNN’s “State of the Union” that while she’s not inclined to vote for Johnson as speaker, House Democrats are aware of the “realities of governance” and they want to “make sure that that governance continues and that responsible governance continues.”

“I don’t think we do that for free,” she said of a vote for Johnson. “And I don’t think that we do that, you know, out of sympathy for Republicans.”

Some Republicans expressed concerns that moving forward with a motion to vacate the speakership could lead to unintended consequences, such as selecting a less desirable candidate from their party – or even a Democrat.