The House Republican Conference is in disarray. In the last few months, a wave of powerful GOP lawmakers have called it quits, symptomatic of a larger dysfunction. Now, an unsettling new predicament looms for House Speaker Mike Johnson, who has held the role only a few months.

In conversations with the Deseret News, Utah Republican Reps. Blake Moore and Celeste Maloy didn’t back away from acknowledging the difficulties that exist in the Republican Conference, but they also projected optimism for a path forward under Johnson’s leadership.

Moore, who represents Utah’s 1st District and is a recently elected GOP leader himself, spoke about the mood among Republican lawmakers. He also addressed the issue of lawmakers quitting Congress in the middle of their terms, instead of waiting to retire after the November election.

“We’re down to a very, very narrow majority,” he said.

House tackles long list of retirements

Wisconsin Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher, chairman of the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, said in February he would not seek reelection. His announcement came just days after receiving blowback for not voting to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

His decision coincided with another Republican committee chair — Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington — signaling her intention to retire.

But Gallagher, who had committed to serving the rest of his term, went a step further, saying in March he would resign from his seat as soon as April 19, leaving the Republicans with an even tinier majority. He joins Republican Reps. Ken Buck of Colorado, who resigned from the House as of March 22 of this year; Bill Johnson of Ohio, who resigned on Jan. 21; and former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who resigned on Dec. 31.

After Gallagher leaves, Republicans will be down to a 217-213 majority.

In addition to those resignations, several high-profile Republicans announced they would retire at the end of their terms, including Financial Services Chair Patrick McHenry of North Carolina and Appropriations Chair Kay Granger of Texas.

Utah’s Moore, who was elected vice chair of the House Republican Conference last year, said going through these exits case-by-case made him feel less concerned. McHenry faced a term limit for his top committee position, and it isn’t unusual for lawmakers to leave in these cases, he said. Granger, too, had hit the limit of six years, a cap imposed by the Republican Conference.

“Losing Cathy McMorris Rogers, who is an exceptional person and leader, two years before she would be termed out was a bit shocking,” he admitted.

But Moore said he understood her decision to leave and spend time with her special needs son during his crucial teenage years.

He sounded hopeful about reversing the trend of the shrinking majority through upcoming special elections for these soon-to-be-vacant seats. But he recognized in the near-term, the resignations will limit the House GOP’s ability “to accomplish a few things — but not to any significant degree.”

The House GOP’s functional dysfunction

“It hasn’t been like a primrose path,” Moore said. “I’m never going to try to fool the people who took five days to elect the speaker,” only to take his gavel away, referring to McCarthy, R-Calif.

Now, current Speaker Johnson, R-La., faces a motion to strip him of his gavel. The motion was filed by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-Ga., before the House dispersed for recess last week. Green called it a “warning and a pink slip.”

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., departs a news conference, joined by Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, left, and Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Texas, after they discussed President Joe Biden for his policies at the Mexican border during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. | J. Scott Applewhite

Moore said whether the threat is serious or not will be clear in the next few weeks. “But I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say it’s just hunky dory,” he said.

Maloy, who represents Utah’s 2nd District, said she sees the Republican Party, Congress and the country going through a defining moment. “We are at the point where things are not functioning well and everyone can recognize that we need to do things differently,” she said. “There’s always a reason to vote no, there’s always something to criticize.”

When Maloy was sworn in, she promised “better days through better ways” — and she said this keeps her going.

Maloy advocated for voting on individual spending bills instead of hefty omnibuses to increase transparency between the American public and Congress, as bulky one-shot packages have become the status quo.

But even with a narrow majority and divided government, Moore said House Republicans managed to secure breakthrough accomplishments while avoiding an ill-advised shutdown last week, when, after six long months of negotiations, Congress finally passed the needed spending bills to keep government open.

“We just had one of the most successful appropriations processes, even within a fractured Republican Party,” Moore said. The vote for the final spending bill was split among GOP representatives, with 112 opposing the measure and 101 supporting it.

He touted the increased defense and lowered non-defense discretionary spending, adding, “We haven’t done that in over a decade,” and championing it as “a significant conservative win.”

“I wish we would do a better job of celebrating those wins and sticking together,” he said.

Speaker Johnson’s leadership under threat

Maloy said the public doesn’t normally pay attention to the “inside baseball” in Congress. But “right now, they are,” prompting Republican lawmakers to engage in conversations and assess what’s functioning well and what isn’t, she said.

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., ceremonially swears in Celeste Maloy, R-Utah, to the House of Representatives to succeed former Rep. Chris Stewart, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. | Stephanie Scarbrough

Moore said he agreed with Maloy on Americans being “hyper-focused” on the goings-on in Congress, partly because some representatives are drawing “a lot of attention.”

“We draw a lot of attention to ourselves because we’re oftentimes trying to tackle our own quarterback, and everybody’s like, ‘Why in the world? ... If they’re trying to remove Speaker Johnson, he must have done something really bad,’” said Moore.

But Moore firmly defended Johnson, saying, “There’s an incentive for that type of drama to be created ... and that’s a reality that we also have to face right now.”

When asked what these incentives are, Moore said, “Media attention and fundraising capabilities.”

He called Johnson a “strong conservative leader” and a man of faith. Instead of quibbling over low-priority issues, Moore said he hopes the remaining GOP representatives trust Johnson, especially when Republicans don’t have control of the Senate and the White House.

“We elected him and if we can’t get aligned with his vision, which is very clear and thoughtful ... then he won’t have the influence that we want him to have,” he said. “And that’s the cold, hard truth.”

Moore said despite the turmoil, behind closed doors, he and his colleagues get along well. “I just wish we could show it outwardly, and that’s the area that I’m going to focus on in my role on the leadership team,” he said.

When Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, was asked if he would back Green’s motion to vacate the chair during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, he didn’t deny the possibility.

“I can promise you, if you put a Ukraine bill on the floor and you haven’t secured the border, there’s going to be a problem … within the ranks on Capitol Hill,” Roy told host Jake Tapper.

Maloy said she didn’t see the speaker’s future tied to the border since he has hailed it as a top Republican priority. She said Johnson works with people across the political spectrum with “patience and graciousness,” and it will “pay off for him.”

“He’s the most conservative speaker we’ve had in my lifetime,” she said, before optimistically adding, “We’re going figure out a way to work out these differences and deliver some wins for the American people.”