Newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson did Wednesday what none of the Republican Party’s top congressional leadership could do — unite the House Republican Conference.
But in doing so, the inconspicuous Louisiana congressman inherited an overwhelming legislative timeline and a conference left angry and aggrieved after weeks of internecine strife.
Utah Republican Rep. John Curtis said GOP lawmakers reached “a new low” following the removal of former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy earlier this month, alongside many other Republican representatives who lambasted the group of eight Republicans led by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz who vacated the speaker’s chair and threw the House into disarray.
While Johnson will face the same improbable balancing act as McCarthy — placating the party’s right wing without alienating other colleagues or dooming bipartisan negotiations — Curtis says that Johnson’s miraculous emergence as a consensus figure might make him uniquely capable of managing the People’s House.
“He did the one thing nobody thought could be done, which is unite the conference with 220 votes. His job is largely getting 220 people with different opinions to agree and that’s a pretty high bar that he passed last night,” Curtis told the Deseret News Wednesday, referring to Johnson’s unanimous nomination as GOP speaker-designate late Tuesday night.
How did Mike Johnson become speaker?
The quick election of Johnson as speaker Wednesday followed weeks of trial-and-error that saw his conference becoming increasingly frustrated and worried that no candidate could secure enough support to win a majority in a floor vote.
After McCarthy’s speakership came to a dramatic end three weeks ago, the void left behind was predictably difficult to fill. The short-lived bids of Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the second- and third-ranking Republican leaders in the House, respectively, as well as the contentious and unsuccessful pressure campaign of the most powerful committee chair in the House, Rep. Jim Jordan, put the apparently insurmountable divisions between House Republicans in stark relief.
Three weeks of disagreement and disappointment seemed to open the way for Johnson, the then-vice chair of the Republican conference, Curtis said.
“I think there was a dose of humility that we had not seen in the previous speaker designees. I think there was a way he articulates his vision that inspires instead of offends. And I think he has worked hard in his time here to build relationships of trust. And all of those things were factors in his selection,” Curtis said.
However, Johnson’s message of restoring trust will be put to the test in coming weeks, Curtis said, explaining that Wednesday’s temporary show of Republican unity may have papered over many “deeply bruised relationships” in the conference that will require a masterful hand to not inflame.
“I think we can heal and I think we can be stronger but I don’t think it’s automatic. I think that Speaker Johnson has a real task ahead of him to highlight our similarities and not let our differences come forward because they’re stark and raw and if not careful will become the issue of the day again,” Curtis said.
What’s next for House Republicans?
It’s hard to see McCarthy’s ouster coming at a worse time. Just days after his removal, Israel faced an unprecedented attack from the Gaza-based terrorist organization Hamas. In the intervening weeks, the House was unable to move forward with a supplemental aid package or any other show of support for the United States’ top ally in the Middle East.
One of Johnson’s first actions as speaker was to pass a resolution condemning Hamas, rebuking Iran for its involvement with the group and promising military support to Israel. The resolution passed with overwhelming bipartisan support but was quickly followed by a precursor of what is to come.
On Wednesday morning, a motion to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., for her statements regarding Hamas and Israel’s war in Gaza was filed by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. Johnson seemed likely to delay what is sure to be contentious censureship vote till next week, according to Punchbowl News.
Johnson is likely to face pressure from Greene and others on the right to prioritize impeachment proceedings even as lawmakers stare down a nearly impossible government funding timeline.
The House became speaker-less following the passage of a stop-gap funding measure that postponed a government shutdown for 45 days. Over half of that time has now been eaten up by the speaker’s race, likely necessitating the passage of another “continuing resolution,” according to Curtis, providing time to work through all 12 annual spending bills in the House and the Senate.
“And that’s of course why it’s important that we elected somebody that knows how to get 220 people on the same page because I don’t believe any of those 220 want a shutdown and yet the reality of the task at hand probably dictates that we’re going to need some extra time,” Curtis said.
Prior to his election as speaker, Johnson proposed an ambitious plan to his colleagues to pass all remaining spending bills by Nov. 17 and committed to creating a bipartisan commission to tackle the nation’s skyrocketing debt and budget deficits.
Even though the stated reason for McCarthy’s removal was his willingness to call on Democratic support to maintain government funding levels, leaders of the conservative House Freedom Caucus has signaled that they will give Johnson more leeway than his predecessor in spending negotiations with the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House.
“The real problem with Kevin was not necessarily the continuing resolution or the debt ceiling deal but there were some fundamental flawed relationships and so I think the continuing resolution became the vehicle to express the mistrust and the anger that was there,” Curtis said. “Speaker Johnson gets to start with a clean slate.”
But Johnson’s rise to the leadership isn’t baggage-free. In 2020, Johnson was on the House defense team during the first impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. He also supported Trump’s legal challenges to the 2020 election, including spearheading an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit in Texas that sought to overturn election results in four states, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Curtis said he wishes all of his colleagues had certified the results of the 2020 presidential election and had immediately recognized Biden as the legitimate winner, but he does not see the failure to do so as disqualifying.
There is no one in Congress with better “personal character” than Johnson, said Curtis in a video posted after Johnson’s nomination. On Wednesday, Curtis added that the polarization of the last several years should push lawmakers to hold themselves to a higher standard going forward, and that Johnson was someone who would do just that.
“It points out the responsibility on all of us to support institutions, to support the Constitution. And for me, I’m always going to be looking for people who do that the best they can.”