Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana has inherited a Republican majority in disarray after the unanticipated removal of his predecessor. However, as Johnson works to rebuild the slim majority, he faces the same divisions and hard-right factions that plagued his predecessor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California.
These challenges are creating disruptions, leading to shelved priorities, and raising doubts about any leader’s ability to govern effectively.
Capitol Hill recently witnessed escalating tensions and political chaos. Incidents included a Republican senator challenging a Teamsters union boss to a physical altercation, as well as outbursts from lawmakers. In response, the inexperienced new speaker had to abandon his party’s schedule and dismiss everyone early for Thanksgiving. Johnson lamented the high-pressure environment, expressing hope that tensions would ease.
The outlook for the future appears bleak. House Republicans, who had promised to cut federal spending, investigate President Joe Biden, and reverse a series of Democratic policies, have made only incremental progress towards their goals. Despite McCarthy’s debt deal with Biden earlier this year, which aimed to reduce federal deficits by $1.5 trillion over the next decade, the conservative victory remains mostly theoretical.
Republicans have failed to pass the necessary legislation to implement those cuts, and some bills have been removed from the House floor due to opposition from centrist and hard-right conservatives.
With the deadline for a potential government shutdown approaching, Congress passed another short-term spending bill, known as a continuing resolution, which maintains spending at previously agreed upon levels. This move avoids an immediate federal closure but sets the stage for a showdown in January.
Discontent among conservatives centers on the temporary spending bill, which perpetuates spending levels agreed upon during a period when Democrats held control of Congress, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California was the speaker.
Rep. Chip Roy of Texas vocally criticized his colleagues, declaring that they have not fulfilled their promises and questioning when they will start fighting as a Republican majority. This complaint led to McCarthy’s ousting in October and poses a threat to Johnson’s leadership.
The schism within the Republican Party over spending highlights the disconnect between Republican ideals of reducing the government’s size and cutting programs, and the reality of the impact these cuts have on constituents. Rep. Nick LaLota of New York, a centrist conservative, voted against legislation to fund the Justice Department and other agencies due to concerns that law enforcement cuts would harm public safety organizations. He emphasized that his constituents do not approve of such measures.
Additionally, Republicans are frustrated with countless late-night voting sessions and the consideration of hundreds of amendments, which leads to multiple unsuccessful legislative attempts. LaLota stated that after ten months in the majority, this strategy is ineffective. He believes that constituents want cuts, but in specific areas that are seen as appropriate.
Congress is also grappling with increased global conflicts. President Biden has requested a supplemental spending package amounting to nearly $106 billion to support Ukraine’s fight against Russia, assist Israel in its conflict with Hamas, and provide relief for Palestinians in Gaza. The package includes other priorities, such as bolstering U.S.-Mexico border security.
Johnson outlined a strategy for the stopgap measure, similar to a proposal from the hard-right Freedom Caucus, which would divide the spending bill into two parts, with funding expiring on different dates in January and February. However, conservatives criticized this plan, and most members of the caucus voiced opposition to it. Johnson rejected their suggestion to attach the House-passed Israel aid package to push the Senate into action.
Hard-right members were skeptical of Johnson’s strategy but wanted to allow the new speaker time to find his way.
Republicans are aware that their slim majority in the House is increasingly at risk heading into the 2024 election season if they fail to fulfill their promises. Many lawmakers from both parties are opting to retire rather than continue to engage in ongoing battles.
Johnson defended his three weeks on the job, acknowledging that substantial change takes time. He pledged to present strong plans and stated that he is in a different situation from McCarthy. However, Rep. Garrett Graves of Louisiana, a McCarthy ally, dismissed the belief that a new speaker would bring a plethora of new options. He predicted that the road ahead would continue to be challenging.
After House Democrats helped Johnson avoid a federal shutdown, Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, whose party also contributed to McCarthy’s removal, expressed a desire to maintain a positive relationship with the new speaker. When asked for advice, Jeffries simply wished Johnson luck.