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Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) walks through the U.S. Capitol.
House Speaker Mike Johnson is navigating the situation of relying on Democrats to keep his position. Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via AP

Mike Johnson Bets He Can Rely on Democrats and Still Lead Republicans

GOP speakers used to believe they couldn’t be effective if they relied on Democratic votes to remain in power. Mike Johnson might be changing the game.

House Speaker Mike Johnson is in the midst of doing what other Republican leaders once thought was impossible: relying on Democrats to stay in power.

For years, GOP speakers operated under the assumption that if they ever needed Democrats to save their jobs, it would spark such a crisis of confidence within the GOP conference that their time in leadership would soon end.

Last week, Johnson got 163 Democrats to quash a motion to vacate from his right flank, more than canceling out the 11 Republicans who tried to oust him from the speakership. Now, as some of those Republicans are pointing out, Johnson essentially owes his position to Democrats — and any time he’s faced with staring down the other party, it could be a problem.

Texas Rep. Chip Roy, one of the 11 Republicans who voted to remove Johnson last week, told NOTUS that “passing bills with Democrat votes to make the majority is a nonstarter in the next Congress.”

“That will be debated in earnest, in full, between now and November,” Roy said. “It’s a complete nonstarter.”

Pressed that much of the House GOP seems perfectly comfortable letting Johnson be speaker, even if he’s relying on Democratic votes, Roy didn’t back down.

“They’re wrong, and they’re going to have to deal with it,” he said.

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La.
House Speaker Mike Johnson arrives for a vote at the Capitol. Mariam Zuhaib/AP

Other Republicans don’t think they will have to deal with it — at least not for the rest of the year. With such a narrow and divided majority, it’s almost impossible for any GOP speaker to rely on only Republicans, particularly when so many lawmakers seem incentivized to throw a wrench into legislative proceedings. That’s why Johnson has repeatedly turned to Democrats to do the most serious work of governing, like passing spending bills and a $95 billion foreign aid package.

Asked about the old understanding that a GOP speaker couldn’t rely on Democrats to lead Republicans, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick suggested that thinking might be outdated.

“I’m not sure any of those rules really apply anymore,” the Pennsylvania Republican, who was recently ranked as the most bipartisan member of Congress, told NOTUS. “With the one-seat margin, we effectively already have a coalition government.”

Members returned to the Capitol this week for what amounted to a normal few days of work, with most of the GOP conference ready to move past the speaker turmoil. It’s unclear how long the stability will last, but lawmakers who once might have been outraged by Democrats propping up a speaker seem to now mostly be ignoring the situation.

“I don’t want to talk about the drama of the place,” said Rep. Scott Perry, a former chairman — and a current member — of the far-right House Freedom Caucus. “Nobody cares in the real world.”

Republicans told NOTUS that Johnson has a stronger hand than his predecessors not because of any real strategic innovation, but because of the party’s paper-thin majority and exhaustion from GOP infighting.

“Most members know that was not a happy experience,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Tom Cole said of last year’s vote to remove former Rep. Kevin McCarthy from the speakership. “We couldn’t get anything done, and we ripped one another apart. I think most members do not want to go do that again.”

From Cole’s perspective, Johnson has been a success — for the very reasons far-right members like Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Roy oppose him.

“We’ve had a pretty good run here,” Cole said of Johnson’s strategy on spending bills, approving Ukraine aid and reauthorizing foreign surveillance powers. “All those things have been done in a bipartisan fashion. That’s good.”

Rep. Warren Davidson, an Ohio Republican who voted to advance the motion to remove Johnson because he at least wanted the House to have a real debate on the topic, said he thinks most members now want to “just get through the election.”

“Hopefully, Donald Trump wins and we grow our majority in the House and then we get on offense and put a leadership team in place that’s going to do the things we said we would do,” Davidson said.

Even though he functionally supported removing Johnson last week, Davidson wouldn’t rule out backing him to lead the conference again next year. “Never say never,” he told NOTUS.

At the moment, other Republicans are keeping their options open, too.

Texas Republican Rep. Troy Nehls also wouldn’t say how he’d vote in next year’s leadership race, but he predicted it would be “very difficult” for Johnson to hang onto power — “unless he’s got Democrats that are going to vote for him.”

“The Lord Jesus couldn’t manage this conference,” Nehls said. “It’s going to be interesting to see who could potentially be the next speaker.”

The real test for Johnson will be the November elections. If he can hold onto a majority — and win enough extra seats to outnumber his most devoted critics — he could even stay in power next year.

“I don’t think you kick out a guy who not only wins a majority but probably expands it,” Cole said.

If Republicans lose the majority, Johnson — like any other Republican — won’t be speaker. But the murkiest scenario is one in which Republicans pick up just a handful of seats.

“What makes you think it’s going to change?” asked Nehls. “Let’s hypothetically say we keep the House, we keep the majority, we keep the gavel and we have a six, seven-seat majority — what makes you think anything will change?”

Until the elections, Johnson has a comparatively easy few months ahead. He’s already run the legislative gauntlet, accomplishing the most pressing items on the House’s to-do list for the year. And the one must-pass piece of legislation — government funding — will likely be a stopgap spending measure that extends funding until after the elections.

In short, Johnson is already through the worst of it.

“There’s this scene in ‘Shawshank Redemption’ where Andy crawls through the foulest, most disgusting pipe,” North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry told reporters after the foreign assistance bill passed. “I explained it to the speaker that government funding, FISA and the supplemental are the pipe. All you can dictate is how quickly you get through that pipe.”

“On the other side, it’s freedom,” he said. “It is a glorious thing.”

Haley Byrd Wilt is a reporter at NOTUS.