© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
Mike Johnson
Speakers typically stack the committee with allies, using it to funnel legislation to the floor and limit amendments. Mariam Zuhaib/AP

Mike Johnson Can’t Do Anything About Rebellious Members on a Key Committee

Lawmakers on the Rules Committee are openly hostile toward the speaker in ways that were previously unthinkable.

The House Rules Committee is often seen as an extension of the speaker’s office, and — until very recently — it was unfathomable that its members would vote against leadership without facing consequences.

But some Republicans currently serving on the committee are openly hostile toward House Speaker Mike Johnson. One of them, Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, even urged Johnson to resign this week for trying to advance billions of dollars in new Ukraine aid.

Johnson said he won’t step down and defended his decision to move forward with the aid package. In the meantime, it’s not clear Massie will face any repercussions for his stance against the speaker. A spokesperson for Johnson didn’t reply to NOTUS’ requests for comment.

“He’s got every right to stay on Rules,” panel member Ralph Norman, a South Carolina Republican, said of Massie.

Three members — Massie, Norman, and Chip Roy — all voted against the aid package rule in committee on Thursday night, and all the Democrats on the panel ultimately supported it to bail out Johnson and get the rule to the floor. Support from a minority party in the Rules committee is an extremely rare occurrence.

The divide is just one more way Republican infighting has turned the House upside down. Speakers typically stack the committee with allies, using it to funnel legislation to the floor and limit amendments. Johnson didn’t have that opportunity, coming into the speakership after former Speaker Kevin McCarthy set up the panel.

More than five months into his tenure, Johnson hasn’t tried to reshape it — even as its meetings often descend into fierce debate and sharp criticism from his own members. On Wednesday night, the committee failed to approve a rule Johnson wanted, which would have allowed consideration of a border bill alongside debate on foreign aid. Conservatives wanted to structure it so the border bill would be included in the final package sent to the Senate, while GOP leaders wanted to send it over separately rather than risk tanking the Ukraine bill’s ability to pass in a chamber held by Democrats.

Rep. Mike Lawler, a New York Republican, said members unwilling to support Johnson’s agenda should step down.

On Thursday morning, the committee met again to debate the legislation, with members from both parties arguing for it by invoking the lessons of World War II and the future of global democracy. Massie questioned how sanctions might disrupt global financial stability and questioned whether the aid might provide cluster munitions that could harm civilians.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said Republicans “cannot be afraid at this moment.”

“Evil is on the march, history is calling and now is the time to act.”

Massie, Norman and Roy joined the committee after McCarthy claimed the gavel in January as part of a deal to elevate far-right voices in the House. It was more institutional power than those members had accumulated before, but the job’s luster has faded.

Sign up for the latest from NOTUS.

“We honestly just haven’t been doing many rules,” Roy told NOTUS. “We had worked out a pretty solid give-and-take with Speaker McCarthy, and we’re now in a different world.”

Last week, Roy voted against a rule providing for consideration of spy powers on the floor after managing debate in support of the rule — something unheard of in previous Congresses.

“Where is that sacrosanct? Is that written in the Bible?” Roy said, according to Punchbowl News at the time. “As we said last January [2023], we’re trying to democratize this place a little bit.”

Past attempts to punish members for rebelling against leadership have had mixed success. Former Speaker John Boehner attempted to remove several difficult members of the conference from key committees in 2015. Ultimately, it led to stronger far-right backlash and his retirement later that year.

Much of Johnson’s agenda has passed under suspension of the rules, a process that sidesteps the committee by relying on an overwhelming, bipartisan majority of the whole chamber.

“It’s not really about the panel as much as the floor,” Roy added of that dynamic. Rank-and-file Republicans have frequently rebelled against Johnson’s plans, making passing the procedural votes that come from the panel almost impossible with a razor-thin majority.

Still, Johnson will try to pass aid to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan under a rule through the committee this week, and as Wednesday night’s feud showed, it may not be an easy lift.

Rules votes within the committee are almost always party-line decisions, but Democrats might side with Johnson to advance the funding to the floor if all three conservatives vote against it. It would be remarkable: Crossing the aisle on that kind of vote happens so rarely, said Congress expert Josh Huder, that it “almost feels like paranormal activity.”

Huder told NOTUS that replacing sitting members of the committee would require the adoption of a resolution in the House with support from a simple majority. Johnson has unilateral power to select replacements, which members then approve, but he can’t single-handedly kick members off the panel in the first place.

Rank-and-file Republicans would rather not think about the rift.

“All these fights can wait until January,” New York Rep. Nicole Malliotakis told NOTUS when asked if Massie should remain on the committee.

And Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw said he’s “still trying to process all the bullshit.”

“I haven’t talked to Massie about what’s driving his decision-making,” he said Wednesday night. “I don’t know. It’s a little too much to process. Everybody’s a clown, it seems like, right now.” (Massie declined to comment on those remarks.)

Crenshaw also speculated on his colleagues’ motives for wanting to remove Johnson from leadership: “I guess their reasoning is they want Russia to win so badly that they want to oust the speaker over it. It’s a strange position to take.”

This story has been updated to include the results of the rules committee vote on Thursday night.

Haley Byrd Wilt is a reporter at NOTUS.