© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

Mike Johnson Stares Down A Year Of Chaos

The House Speaker has to navigate a conference divided over whether to fight now or live to fight another day.

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

It’s only mid-January, but House Republicans are already tired of this year and dysfunction is high. For Speaker Mike Johnson, the rest of 2024 doesn’t look much better — and election season is quickly approaching.

“Everything has looked bad right from the beginning,” Rep. Troy Nehls, a Texas Republican, said between puffs of his cigar after a group of conservatives tanked a simple procedural vote last week. “Everything has looked bad. If we lose the House, we’ve earned it.”

Democrats have repeatedly bailed out Republican leaders on the most basic matters Congress faces, like avoiding a debt ceiling catastrophe and keeping the government funded. On Thursday they did it again when 207 of them voted alongside 107 Republicans to punt a shutdown deadline until March. (The final vote was 314-108).

That buys a few more weeks for Johnson, who is acutely aware of how many voting Republicans he has on any given day and anxious to move onto issues that unite Republicans in an election year. But he now has to navigate a conference divided over whether to fight now or live to fight another day.

He earned ire from his right flank last week for striking a spending agreement that largely keeps government funding levels the same. Some of his fiercest critics support shutting down the government altogether — a call they’ll take up again ahead of the new March funding deadline — until Biden administration officials stop migrants from crossing the southern border. That feud could escalate into yet another speakership ouster, with a few conservative members openly speculating this week about moving to depose Johnson as Rep. Matt Gaetz did to then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy in October.

Republicans don’t have a strong hand. With several resignations, including McCarthy’s, Rep. George Santos’ expulsion, and health problems keeping some members at home, they barely have a majority at all. Leaders soon won’t be able to lose any of their members on party-line votes. And the House Republican Conference’s rifts are only widening.

“There’s conflict. There’s always going to be, especially with these low numbers,” said Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee. “But I think Speaker Johnson’s doing the best job he knows how to do. I like him.”

Still, Burchett, who voted to oust McCarthy last year, told NOTUS a future government shutdown may be good leverage to force the administration to change course on the southern border. “The talk of one wouldn’t hurt,” he said.

Burchett said Johnson made the case in a closed-door meeting last week that Republicans need to win the next election to accomplish their priorities, and a shutdown wouldn’t help achieve that goal. Burchett wasn’t convinced.

“It’s the chicken or the egg: Can we do anything if we’re out of the majority, but are we doing anything now while we’re in the majority?” he said. “I want to fight. I want to fight right now. We’re here. Let’s do it.”

Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina also sees merit in shutting down the government to force change. He told reporters Wednesday he’s “not in favor of willy nilly, or just on a whim shutting down government,” but, “you’re seeing a tremendous upswell of expression of support for the idea of ‘deal with this’ in a way that may involve a shutdown.”

“It could be done,” he added. “In fact, I think it’d be very straightforward.”

Those views are ludicrous to Rep. Carlos Gimenez, a Florida Republican who opposed the effort to oust McCarthy.

“I don’t see how shutting down the government helps you secure the border,” he told NOTUS. “To me, it’s illogical. So I support the speaker and his negotiation.”

Gimenez added that Johnson is contending with the same reality of divided government McCarthy grappled with.

“When you face the same reality, if you’re a smart individual—and he’s a smart individual—he’s going to come up with the same solutions,” he said. “The reality didn’t change just because we changed speakers. Apparently, some folks in our conference don’t understand that.”

Rep. Max Miller, an Ohio Republican, also had sharp criticism for his colleagues.

“We have a bunch of members within this conference who continue to want to elevate their platform and raise money and put themselves before the country,” he told reporters after a closed-door conference meeting this week. “The American people can see it. I can see it as a freshman member of Congress, and it’s incredibly upsetting.”

His theory: Too many House Republicans “played individual sports growing up as a kid,” and they don’t know how to work as a team. Miller complained that members “who act out of their minds” don’t face enough consequences. Those who voted to end McCarthy’s speakership, he argued, should lose their committee assignments and access to party campaign funds.

“Without discipline, without structure, you cannot run an organization,” he said. “This body needs it. This body craves it.”

And then there are some Republicans who’d rather just leave legislating for the next Congress — a full year away. Nehls argued Congress should simply pass a stopgap funding measure that keeps spending levels the same until then. He expects members won’t be able to accomplish much anyway unless a Republican wins the presidency in the fall.

“If you want to get anything done, you really need the White House,” he told NOTUS.

But there’s plenty of work that needs attention this year. Members still have to fund the government. They’ll need to decide whether to send new military aid to Ukraine and Israel. A bipartisan group of senators may soon push the House to consider an immigration and border security deal. A deadline to reauthorize spy agencies’ surveillance powers is coming up. And lawmakers who handle tax issues have proposed a bill to expand the child tax credit, hoping for a quick vote in time for filing season.

Those issues threaten to divide the GOP conference even further. Republicans couldn’t even agree on their own partisan spending bills last year; bills they knew had no chance of becoming law. How will they make headway on anything controversial when it could easily instead be used as campaign fodder?

As he navigates those debates, Johnson will also have to continually gauge just how serious his opponents are about upending his leadership. On Wednesday, Arizona Rep. Eli Crane told reporters the motion to remove the speaker, which under the current rules can be introduced by any one member, is “a good tool,” cryptically adding that “I may be part of something in the future.”

Nehls — a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus who didn’t vote to oust McCarthy but did enthusiastically call for former President Donald Trump to claim the gavel afterward — mocked the prospect of kicking Johnson out now.

“Why don’t we just see if we can get the janitor to take it?” Nehls said.

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