© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
Mike Johnson AP-24060634984236
Johnson “has tried to accommodate those who have a very difficult time finding compromise,” one member said. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Mike Johnson’s Strategy of Losing All the Time Is Helping Him Stay in Power

Johnson’s willingness to let his party’s messy policy fights play out in public actually seems to be working in his favor.

For Mike Johnson, losing may be the best way to win.

His House agenda is often bumbling, with failed procedural votes and bills abruptly pulled from the floor. Several of his members have hit the exits early, leaving Republicans only barely hanging onto a majority at all.

But all the chaos has had at least one beneficial side effect for Johnson: Everyone is simply too tired and too burned out to look for someone else who might do the job better.

Anything could happen in this chaotic Congress, and members’ stances could always change, but this week, GOP lawmakers said Johnson is unlikely to lose the gavel for the rest of the year and argued his willingness to let his party’s messy policy fights play out in public actually seems to be working in his favor — for now.

“Other than just a small exception, the majority of members are still supporting him because he inherited a mess,” said Georgia Rep. Barry Loudermilk. “He hasn’t had a chance to lead because he’s still chasing what was left undone.”

Republicans said they feel too jaded from the party’s turmoil last year to consider another leadership election despite a looming threat from outspoken Trump ally Marjorie Taylor Greene. Democrats, too, don’t seem eager to help far-right members oust Johnson as they did with former Speaker Kevin McCarthy in October. With the 2024 election approaching, lawmakers from both parties want to appear a bit more functional as an institution than they did last year. Another speakership fight wouldn’t help with that.

The institution is still going through it, though: Since Johnson claimed the gavel in October, four different procedural votes have failed — an embarrassment for GOP leaders. Past speakers prided themselves on keeping their party unified on such votes, even if some of their members opposed the underlying bills up for consideration. But rank-and-file Republicans have increasingly used it as a weapon to force Johnson to change course, first tanking attempts at spending bills and this week grinding a surveillance reauthorization debate to a halt.

Johnson brushed off this week’s failed rule vote and tried again Friday morning, this time successfully, having made a few tweaks to satisfy hard-liners. He’s said in the past that this iterative, unpredictable version of the House just highlights the sausage-making process of democracy. Taking votes to the floor without being certain of the outcome also reminds his members just how divided their conference is — giving him cover to work with Democrats when needed — and makes clear which Republicans on a given day are to blame for delays and disruption.

“When you’ve got such a small majority right now, that’s really the only way you’re going to know where you are, is to throw it up on the board,” said Loudermilk. “Then you know for sure who you need to go talk to.”

(House GOP Whip Tom Emmer told reporters this week that he doesn’t count votes for those procedural questions, and he said he doesn’t plan to change that approach when asked if maybe he should start.)

Rep. Mike Lawler, a New York Republican, also suggested that Johnson’s approach is unavoidable in a closely divided House.

“Not everything is clean or compartmentalized the way people want it to be,” he told NOTUS. “We’re in a democracy. There are going to be divisions and debates, and, you know, sometimes that obviously spills out into public view. But the objective for all of us is to find compromise and find a path forward so that you can ultimately get legislation across the finish line.”

Johnson, he added, “has tried to accommodate those who have a very difficult time finding compromise.”

Are repeated failures on the floor damaging his standing? “It’s been so many rules that have failed thus far,” said Lawler. “I don’t think that is a blow to the speakership.”

Rep. Ralph Norman, a South Carolina Republican who voted against the first rule to debate the surveillance powers bill this week, shared a similar view: “Did the sun stop coming up when the rule was voted down? Did America shut down? Did the average American say, ‘Oh, my God. A rule was voted down.’ Only in the bubble of Washington, D.C., is that even an issue.”

Norman added that he wouldn’t support Greene’s motion to remove Johnson from the speakership: “Who wants it? Do we really want to go through the charade we went through before?”

Whether Johnson can keep the party’s top position in the next Congress when members aren’t as burned out remains unclear. Republican lawmakers said it would be easier for him to stay in power the larger their numbers.

Norman didn’t try to predict it: “Time will tell,” he said. “Seven months … a day in politics is a lifetime.”


Haley Byrd Wilt is a reporter at NOTUS.