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Why Mike Johnson’s honeymoon was so short

By Michael Jones

As House Republican leaders, including committee chairs and members from the various camps of the conference, assembled at the Mandarin Oriental in Miami earlier this week to hear Speaker Mike Johnson’s plan for holding their slim majority, they were greeted with what amounted to a sermon focused on the perceived moral decline of America.

The speech fell flat, according to Olivia Beavers of Politico, with one member describing it “horrible” and declaring: “I’m not at church.”

The same member added: “I think what he was trying to do, but failed on the execution of it, was try to bring us together. The sermon was so long he couldn’t bring it back to make the point.”

The response to the Miami sermon reflects the growing tension between Johnson, a newbie leader figuring it all out as he goes, and a rebellious conference trying to advance an unpopular legislative agenda with a barebones majority.

Johnson, who received the top gavel just 120 days ago, is already facing calls for his job from House conservatives if he puts a bill approving billions in additional Ukraine aid on the floor or fails to fight hard enough for far-right policy riders in the full-year funding bills lawmakers are currently negotiating.

Republicans promised to give Johnson grace when he was elected to replace the ousted Kevin McCarthy because he inherited a mess. But their patience is thinning as they realize their problems run deeper than the guy at the top. 

Let’s unpack three reasons why Johnson’s honeymoon is all but over.

The most common critique from members of both parties is of the speaker’s indecisiveness. Johnson often slow-walks scheduling decisions and avoids weighing in with his thoughts on a piece of legislation.

For example, he said he wouldn’t put a short-term funding bill on the floor when he became speaker but did so to start the year. He could soon face pressure to do so again if appropriators fail to finish work on the first set of bills Congress must pass to avoid a government shutdown by next Friday.

His unwillingness to endorse his preferred legislation to reform the government’s surveillance powers to spy on foreign and domestic targets has made mobilizing enough support to pass a bill by the April deadline a heavier lift than it should be.

Rank-and-file members take their cues from leadership—whether or not they agree with the decision—and when there’s a void at the top, it impacts the rest of the chamber. (House Freedom Caucus Chair reportedly called on Johnson to be a leader and not a neutral referee during the ELC retreat, Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan reported for Punchbowl News this week.)

“I honestly don’t know why Johnson wanted to be speaker,” Rep. Becca Balint, a first-term congresswoman from Vermont, told me outside the House floor last week after GOP leadership announced it would send members home a day early for the President’s Day recess because Johnson lacked the votes for the surveillance bill. “Is it just an ego thing? Is it a vanity project? Does he truly believe he got the power from God? What is it that you are trying to achieve here? Because you got nothing to show.”

When he does make a decision, his logic is nonsensical.

Case in point: After the Senate passed a $95 billion national security supplemental funding bill last week to provide aid to Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, civilians in Gaza and federal agencies at the southern border, Johnson said he was in no rush to put the bill on the floor because his attention is on the appropriations process.

However, the funding bills are still being negotiated and are several steps removed from floor action. Meanwhile, the supplemental has the two-thirds majority support to pass under a fast-track procedure known as suspension of the rules. 

“Democrats also believe in on-the-job training. That’s clearly where Speaker Johnson is right now,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar told me last week. “But you have to be able to do two things at once. [Former Speaker] Nancy Pelosi frequently did 12 things. I understand doing two is hard for him, but that’s what the job entails.”

Aguilar, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said the House has plenty of floor time to consider the supplemental while the committee completes the funding bills.

“What we’re finding out is he just wants to carry Donald Trump’s water,” he added. “But we have to be able to do multiple things at once here, but he’s shown incapable of that.”

Another reason Johnson is in a tough spot is because he has fewer powerful allies than previous speakers.

Most speakers spend years in leadership building relationships with members who can help sell their decisions or serve as intermediaries with members resistant to a leadership decision.

McCarthy, Johnson’s predecessor, was the top House Republican for eight nonconsecutive years before he became speaker. He also had five years of experience in other elected leadership positions within the House GOP Conference.

Pelosi, who led the House Democratic Caucus for twenty years before stepping down in 2022, also served as the caucus’s chief vote-counter, the number-three position at the time. 

And if House Democrats win back the House this summer, Leader Hakeem Jeffries will ascend to the speakership with eight years of leadership experience—two as leader, two as a co-chair of the caucus’s messaging arm, and four as caucus chair.

Johnson, who was elected in 2016, served as chair of the Republican Study Committee—the largest bloc of conservatives in Congress—from 2019 to 2021. And he was Vice Chair of the House GOP Conference from 2021 to his election as speaker last October. But his relative inexperience means he lacks the support system former speakers McCarthy and Pelosi or Leader Jeffries currently have. This makes the behind-the-scenes legislative horse-trading that makes Congress run harder for Johnson because he has fewer advocates to deploy on his behalf.

Finally, Johnson is an easy target for the opposition.

It’s not just Johnson’s members who are frustrated. Congressional Democrats, traditional Senate Republicans and White House officials are annoyed with his approach to the speakership and fealty to Donald Trump. (Johnson has said he regularly speaks to the former president and was photographed with Trump at Mar-a-Lago earlier this week.)

The unity of these three groups has isolated Johnson even more and turned public opinion against House Republicans for recent self-inflicted wounds, including the border deal they demanded but then scuttled under Trump’s orders and preventing Ukraine aid from receiving a vote as the European country has been forced to surrender its defensive gains against Russia as it rations its remaining ammunition.

The consequences of these choices could flow downstream to vulnerable Republicans who will be fighting for their electoral lives this November. Johnson may be fighting for his political life if the party loses its majority under his watch.

Michael Jones is an independent Capitol Hill correspondent and contributor for COURIER. He is the author of Once Upon a Hill, a newsletter about Congressional politics.

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