James Johnson is co-founder of JL Partners. He was the Senior Opinion Research and Strategy Adviser to Theresa May as Prime Minister from 2016-2019.
The memories of Britain’s parliamentary strife during the Brexit years makes the hardiest of us shudder. But they pale in comparison to the travails facing Representative Mike Johnson.
Johnson is the newly-elected Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, and has the unenvious task of balancing a group of lawmakers far more factional and fractious than the UK has seen, while also navigating what is currently one of the tightest margins of House control in nine decades.
Hanging over his head is the knowledge that his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, was the first ever Speaker to be removed from office. Throw in a Democrat-controlled Senate (whose Republicans are not on the same page as House Republicans), plus a famously stubborn President in Joe Biden, and you have a truly difficult task in steering through any legislation.
The maths explains why. The threshold for a majority in the House is 218 seats (think the same as Britain’s 326 seats). At the last election, Republicans took the House – just. They won 222 seats, with the Democrats on 213. As of today – because of a House vacancy on the Republican side until a special election on November 21st – that is 221 versus 213.
It is this exceptionally tight number that led to the dispatch of Kevin McCarthy. Due to the Antideficiency Act of 1884, federal agencies can only spend money with annual sign-off from Congress on the cash. In September McCarthy, a Republican, put forward a stopgap bill to temporarily extend government funding to avoid a shutdown. It passed, but only with Democrat support. Ninety Republicans voted against, and – spearheaded by congressman Matt Gaetz – eight decided they had had enough, and voted to remove the Republican speaker. With Democrats voting against too, McCarthy’s brief tenure was over.
After a period of infighting, Republicans settled on a little-known Louisiana representative, Mike Johnson. Nicknamed ‘MAGA’ Mike by Donald Trump, he was voted in unanimously as a consensus candidate for a deeply divided party.
A recent Wall Street Journal analysis split the Republican House conference into three key groups. First there are the conservatives: the bulk of this swing group including former Speaker, Kevin McCarthy. They tend to vote for smaller government and are split on aid for Ukraine. They are most likely to be led by their presidential candidate or House leadership.
Second, there are the centrists: members who are moderate and back Ukraine. They have an eye to their districts, seventeen of which voted for Biden in 2020.
Then there is the super-conservative Freedom Caucus and its allies, a group of 48 that include a former contender for the Speakership, Jim Jordan. Most oppose Ukraine aid, and all bar one of them voted to against keeping the government open in September.
I would add a fourth category: the loose cannons. These highly mercurial individuals include Matt Gaetz, the ringleader of the plot to take McCarthy down. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a firebrand of the far-right, also sits in this category as does Nancy Mace – though more moderate, she was ready to take down McCarthy based on broken promises.
It is over to Johnson to handle these four factions, facing the same arithmetic as his predecessor. He is a man searching for unity, clearly feeling he must put his party first because that is why he got the job in the first place. He will need to find it fast: a second shutdown vote looms next week. More urgent still – and most relevant to Britain and Europe – decisions on Ukraine and Israel aid need to be made.
Biden has asked Congress for a $106 billion package to fund Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and other measures.
But the House has other ideas.
Mike Johnson has brought forward a bill removing Ukraine from the equation and funding only Israel, financed by cuts to the Internal Revenue Service (America’s HMRC). That bill was passed by the House and will now go to the Senate. But the Senate wants something closer to Biden’s combined bill and the Senate’s Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, has indicated that the House plan is dead on arrival.
The reason Democrats hate it so much? They feel it is wrong to link emergency aid to other domestic conditions. What you hear about less is that this is exactly what Biden has also done with his own Bill. His proposed law includes support for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan – but also includes other projects such as money for broadband for low-income households and sewage treatment improvement in Southern California.
Johnson is not vigorously opposed to Ukraine funding. He has said that America “cannot allow Vladimir Putin to prevail” and that he is open to bringing forward a separate Ukraine bill through the House. This would be likely to include another measure akin to his IRS package, perhaps on restoring stricter Trump-era rules for border security.
The Senate, including Republicans, prefer the merged bill, and it is probably this that will end up in the House. Here’s an added complication though: it must pass the Senate first, by 60 votes. Why 60 in a 100-seat chamber? Because of the filibuster – a delaying tactic that means a simple majority is not enough to get bills passed. This is where the package runs aground because of Senate Republicans.
Still with me? Though Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Minority Leader, is vocally pro-Ukraine, he has his own rebels to contend with. Yesterday, Senator John Cornyn warned that 41 Republican Senators are ready to block the Biden bill if it does not include measures on security at the southern border.
If something like that does make the House, it will require masterful work by Johnson, with half the House GOP conference opposed to Ukraine funding. He would need to placate some of them while getting Democrats on side, perhaps through adding oversight measures on the destination of increased aid. Doing that without scaring Democrats off will need arch tightrope-walking.
The public are divided too. A recent J.L. Partners USA / DailyMail.com poll found that Republicans want to put Israel-only funding first, while Democrats want to see both go through at the same time. Only four per cent of Democrats want Israel to be prioritised over Ukraine, and only three per cent of Republicans want Ukraine to be put above Israel.
So how does this all get resolved? To get the funding through, everyone has to compromise. Senate and House Republicans on the conditions they attach. Biden on the domestic baubles he wants to add. Senate and House Democrats on their insistence for the purity of the bill.
Johnson might need to compromise too – on his search for party unity. The new Speaker is a consensus-seeker, but sometimes consensus is not there to be found. Sometimes compromise must be forced.
There are two reasons to think he might be able to force it. First, the threat of a shutdown at the end of next week will hone minds.
Second, it was a once-in-American-history decision to remove a speaker. It took someone as absurd a figure as Gaetz to make it happen. Many Republicans remain furious at that decision and the gift they handed Democrats in the run-up to yesterday’s elections. Even Gaetz seems chastened.
And Republicans’ eyes are on 2024 more than ever. If nothing gets done, the House GOP will get the blame. It is not inconceivable that – for the first time in exactly 200 years – the House could flip to one party next year (the Democrats) while the Senate moves to the other (the GOP). That possibility makes another regicide less likely.
Mike Johnson has goodwill. And with goodwill he has more power than he thinks.