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The empty chamber of the House of Representatives
Mike Johnson has relied on suspending the House rules, which requires support from two-thirds of the House, to accomplish the most basic tasks of governing. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Mike Johnson Has Found a Way to Be Productive — With Democrats

A sweeping bipartisan vote on a tax bill is giving some members hope a (brief) productive period lies ahead.

Speaker Mike Johnson has a functional majority in the House. It’s just not a Republican majority.

Since claiming the gavel in October, the Louisiana Republican has relied on suspending the House rules, which requires support from two-thirds of the House, to accomplish the most basic tasks of governing — like avoiding shutdowns — with Democratic votes.

This week, he took it a step further, suspending the rules to pass an expansion of the child tax credit and tax breaks for businesses, with a resounding vote of 357-70. This wasn’t an emergency, like averting a debt ceiling catastrophe or keeping the government funded. Instead, it was an affirmative attempt to make law in a divided Congress that has struggled to do much of anything.

For Democrats, it’s a hopeful sign of things to come. For some members of Johnson’s own party, it’s a betrayal, especially ahead of an election.

At a Rules Committee meeting on Thursday, Texas Rep. Chip Roy slammed leaders for passing the bill by suspension, instead of through an open process with amendments. What looked like a flicker of bipartisan unity to others represented everything wrong with Washington for members like Roy. In his telling, the two parties agreed on tax breaks for businesses, they bypassed opposition with a tyranny-of-the-majority maneuver and had a kumbaya moment.

“This is not the way we should be doing things,” Roy said.

Roy in particular has been vocal about how the House has been managed, deriding leadership last year for not pushing through a hyper-conservative agenda and instead passing the most important bills with Democratic votes. “Explain to me one material, meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done,” he said in November.

But with a razor-thin majority and feuding Republican factions threatening to derail Johnson’s agenda each week, Democrats hope the new speaker will find areas of agreement with them this year, rather than trying to appease the Chip Roys of the party.

Thursday’s tax vote underscored a fundamental reality of the 118th Congress, one Republican leaders have often tried (with disastrous results) to pretend doesn’t exist: “There is a vast middle which can agree,” said Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Pennsylvania Democrat, “if they stop messing around.”

Was this week’s vote a last-gasp effort to legislate this year, or was it the start of a new, brief era of productivity before election politics makes work even more difficult?

“First half of the election year, we might be able to see some things move,” Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat, told NOTUS. This House is “able to do a lot if we want to.”

That depends on how Johnson deals with “the more extreme voices that have already demonstrated that they’ll sabotage any effort toward bipartisanship,” he said.

In theory, it shouldn’t be difficult to outpace the House’s productivity in the first half of the 118th Congress. The chamber lost a whole month of work in October when Matt Gaetz triggered Kevin McCarthy’s removal. Only 37 new bills have become law since the start of 2023 (compared to the 117th Congress when 84 bills became law in the same time period), making this — for now — the most do-nothing Congress in decades.

Data from recent Congresses shows more bills tend to pass in the second year of a given session. With a long to-do list, that trend could hold true this year. There may be one major difference: In election years, Congress often becomes a campaign arm for lawmakers. Members pass more messaging bills to tout at home, and they don’t debate as many ambitious, substantive measures that could give opponents a boost.

Case in point: Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley recently expressed skepticism to reporters about passing the tax bill because it could “make the president look good.”

Lawmakers have a lot of real work to do, though. They still haven’t agreed on government funding for this fiscal year, months after it began. They’re at odds over urgent questions, like whether to send more military assistance to Ukraine and Israel. They’re facing several deadlines to reauthorize powers for government agencies. And they’re negotiating — chaotically and sometimes angrily — how to secure the southern border.

“This stuff is going to take up the entire calendar,” said Josh Huder, an expert on Congress at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute. Plus, House Republicans often aren’t able to rally behind their own messaging bills, even if there was time for them: For months, GOP lawmakers have tanked their party’s legislation, warring over niche policy conflicts and personal disputes.

It’s not like Johnson has totally spurned the far right. The House is moving forward with plenty of red meat initiatives for their base, like impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over his handling of the southern border and preemptively rebuking a burgeoning bipartisan deal on border security. But Johnson is risking an uprising over his apparent understanding — one McCarthy shared — that when Congress has grown-up work to do, grown-ups are going to try to do it, even if 207 of them are Democrats and only 107 are Republicans.

In March, Johnson will face yet another test when he has to navigate a new government shutdown deadline. A cadre of far-right Republicans want to shut down the government as leverage to force the Biden administration to change its approach to the border, a tactic Johnson has argued is self-defeating. (Yes, the fight between the governing wing of the House GOP and the nongoverning wing of the conference is actually going to culminate in deciding whether to shut down the government or not.)

Messy conflicts like those — and the fact that the House is going to be at home for two whole months this year to campaign — have some members feeling pessimistic about the rest of the year.

“Work’s hard, even in non-election years, and especially in swing districts like mine, where we campaign for two years,” said Rep. Mike Garcia, a California Republican. Garcia told NOTUS “the country needs a win,” on border security, but on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being most confident, he rated the chances of an immigration and Ukraine aid package becoming law at a five.

Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican who supports the idea of the bill, said July is an implicitly understood deadline for passing serious legislation in a presidential election year.

Has anything this House has done so far given him optimism about their ability to handle those issues? “They actually tried to put a number of the appropriations bills out and get them passed,” Rounds told NOTUS. But several of those bills were pulled from the floor amid conference dysfunction.

“I give them a lot of credit for actually trying very hard to get a lot of work done,” he said.

Rep. Brad Wenstrup, an Ohio Republican who isn’t running for reelection, said he feels an urgent need to accomplish his priorities during his remaining time in the House. He told NOTUS this week that presidential election years make legislating difficult around hot-button national issues, but there are ways to pitch bills as not a Republican or Democratic issue but an American one.

Wenstrup chairs the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, and he has to finish that panel’s work before his term ends. He said he also expects legislation about veterans to unify members, even during a bitter campaign season. “We’ve got a lot of things we’re trying to accomplish,” he said.

Why has this House struggled so much to accomplish anything, though?

“Let’s just put it this way,” Wenstrup answered. “I’m of the Reagan mentality: If I can get 80% of what I want, I’ll take it, and then keep fighting for the other 20. There’s just too many people on each side of the aisle, if they can’t get 100%, they don’t take it.”

Haley Byrd Wilt is a reporter at NOTUS. Katherine Swartz, a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow, contributed to this report.