House Speaker Johnson must now confront his own party’s sabotage

House Speaker Johnson must now confront his own party’s sabotage

Steven T. Dennis and Billy House | Bloomberg News (TNS)

Mike Johnson promised a “well-oiled machine” the night he won the U.S. House speaker’s gavel. Four months later, he hasn’t delivered.

Republicans’ impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden is unraveling, Ukraine war aid languishes amid GOP opposition as Russia advances on the battlefield, and the U.S. government is on the brink of a politically damaging government shutdown.

“Over 100 days in, we’ve yet to fulfill and execute policy,” said Republican Patrick McHenry, who briefly served as a caretaker speaker last October after Republicans ousted Kevin McCarthy.

Johnson, a novice in high-stakes Washington negotiations whose tiny House majority is riven with infighting, won the speakership in October after Republicans rejected several more seasoned candidates. At the time, Republicans heralded the election of the 52-year-old socially conservative Louisianan as a fresh start for the deeply fractured party.

Yet multiple senior House Republicans, granted anonymity to speak frankly, now portray Johnson as an insecure leader who faces a steep learning curve. Those GOP lawmakers complain Johnson keeps counsel mostly with an insular circle of his own staffers on even the most challenging matters — and that some senior colleagues are treated as objects of suspicion rather than allies.

They cite two back-to-back humiliating defeats in one early February evening, when the House not only rejected an Israel-only war aid package Johnson put up for a vote but also a marquee Republican impeachment resolution against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Johnson went ahead despite warnings from other Republicans, one lawmaker said.

Johnson rallied his party the following week to impeach Mayorkas on a second try, prevailing by a single vote after Republican Steve Scalise returned from cancer treatment.

Tough Choices

But Johnson now confronts a series of much tougher choices next week that he’s been ducking for months as he navigates a Republican majority at war with itself.

Johnson has repeatedly signaled he opposes a shutdown, thinks it’s bad politics and is willing to compromise to get a spending deal. Senior congressional aides on Thursday were still working on a deal but said they didn’t know whether a shutdown could be avoided.

Having already agreed to overall spending levels with Democrats, Johnson and his lieutenants have sought to temper conservative expectations they will get major policy wins in upcoming funding bills. But Republican hardliners are sticking with a laundry list of demands.

Johnson has toughened his stance against Ukraine aid without major concessions from Democrats on the border. He rejected a bipartisan Senate deal to impose new border restrictions, and he continues to insist on policies like forcing migrants to remain in Mexico while asylum cases are heard.

But the Biden team is stepping up attacks on Republicans for holding back aid after Ukraine’s chaotic retreat from the key city of Avdiivka over the weekend and the suspicious death in prison last week of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

Election-year politics are raising pressure on the speaker. Biden is telegraphing plans to cast a do-nothing Republican House as a villain. House Republicans’ efforts to target the president with an impeachment inquiry were damaged when a star witness was indicted for lying to the FBI and turned out to have ties to Russian intelligence.

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, the party’s dominant figure, has intruded from the sidelines, denouncing the compromise on border restrictions Republican and Democratic senators reached and rendering it toxic for many GOP lawmakers.

And Johnson’s biggest accomplishment — a package of tax cuts passed with the help of Democrats — is being held up in the Senate amid Republican opposition there.

The speaker’s leeway to act will narrow when the House returns next Wednesday from an 11-day break and Democrat Tom Suozzi is sworn in as the winner of a special election to replace expelled New York Republican George Santos. Johnson can’t lose more than two Republicans on a party-line vote.

A wave of senior Republicans are voting with their feet. Twenty-three GOP lawmakers have either resigned or announced plans to leave at the end of the year, including five who hold powerful committee chairmanships.

Rocky Reign

The deadlock on Ukraine aid is a predicament of Johnson’s own making. Despite declaring in October “we can’t allow Putin to prevail,” Johnson has held up aid as leverage for border restrictions. He holds the power to allow or block a vote on aid, though “America First” isolationists like Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia could seek his ouster if he brings it to a vote.

With Johnson yet to offer a plan of his own with any chance of passing the Senate, Republicans who support Ukraine are floating proposals, including a pared-down version or turning the aid into no-interest loans, an unorthodox option Trump raised at a campaign rally.

A broad bipartisan House majority supports Ukraine aid. But more than half of House Republicans voted against Ukraine aid last year. That reflects eroding support among the party’s voters, with 48% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents saying the U.S. gives too much assistance to Ukraine in a Pew poll late last year.

Yet veteran Republican lawmakers see grave political risk if Russia continues to advance on the battlefield while Republicans block ammunition for Ukraine’s defense.

“If Putin wins, Republicans will lose,” said Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

McHenry, who played a key role last year in negotiating an agreement to avert a U.S. debt default, argues the time has come for House Republicans to make the best deal they can. Johnson’s position is secure enough to withstand disappointment among hardliners, if only out of buyer’s remorse over McCarthy’s ouster.

“We’re in a much worse public policy position now because of this,” he said, referring to the recent months of GOP deadlock. “The question is how effective you are with the time you’re given.”

—With assistance from Erik Wasson.

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