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At Long Last, The House Has a New Speaker (For Now?)

By November 6, 2023November 20th, 2023No Comments
By Tom Loranger, Principal


On October 25th, after more than three weeks of acrimony, bitter in-fighting, multiple failed candidacies and general chaos, Congressional Republicans finally elected Congressman Mike Johnson of Louisiana as the nation’s 56th Speaker of the House of Representatives. The 220-209 vote came weeks after the previous Speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, became the first House Speaker to be ousted from the position. Johnson received unanimous support from his Republican colleagues (every Democrat voted for Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York).

Johnson, who has little leadership experience, had to hit the ground running. The previous budget agreement, known as a “continuing resolution”, was set to expire on November 17th. (Continuing resolutions keep the government operating at the previous fiscal year’s levels.) Johnson had acknowledged that another stopgap measure would be required to keep the government running into early next year. Indeed, the House passed a short-term funding bill on November 14th (127 Republicans and 209 Democrats united to pass the legislation over the adamant opposition of most conservative members). The bill subsequently passed in the Senate by a margin of 87-11. Specifically, the continuing resolution funds certain federal agencies until January 19th and others until February 2nd. After Thanksgiving, Congress will still need to deal with aid for Ukraine and Israel regarding their respective conflicts. Certainly, border security will continue to remain “front and center” in the Congress.

Speaker Johnson is a 51-year-old, fourth-term congressman who hails from Shreveport, Louisiana. Unquestionably, he represents the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Johnson has a lifetime rating of 92 percent from the American Conservative Union. He previously served as Chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. Most recently, he served as the House Republican Conference vice chair.

As Speaker, Johnson not only becomes the GOP leader but will also oversee all House procedural matters (for example, what bills reach the floor of the House). He will also assume immense fundraising and candidate recruitment responsibilities.

Johnson will operate within the narrow margins that confronted Speaker McCarthy. In the House, Republicans hold 221 seats while Democrats hold 213 seats. That means that on any question before the House, Johnson can’t afford to lose more than a few of his fellow Republicans. Ironically, McCarthy’s downfall was precipitated by his decision to pass a continuing resolution (with Democrat support), rather than individually process all 12 appropriations bills that fund the government. Johnson is following the same blueprint! Only in Washington.

Conservative members loathe budgeting by continuing resolutions and particularly despise end-of-year “omnibus” bills whereby appropriations measures are wrapped into one massive package. But returning to “regular order” early next year when the continuing resolutions expire will be easier said than done. Afterall, Democrats control both the U.S. Senate and the White House – and are very united in the House. Indeed, on budgetary matters, Speaker Johnson is going to have to walk the same tightrope that Speaker McCarthy walked. And if Johnson, in the minds of certain Republicans, strays too far from conservative

orthodoxy, any one Republican House member can file a motion to vacate the Speaker’s chair – as happened when Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida filed such a motion that led to Speaker McCarthy’s ouster.

Soon after his election to the Speakership, Johnson met with President Biden. The President had earlier issued a statement congratulating Johnson and adding, “I will seek to work with (the Speaker) in good faith on behalf of the American people. Even though we have real disagreements about important issues, there should be mutual effort to find common ground wherever we can.”

Expressions of hope for bi-partisan problem solving are common in such circumstances, but in reality the forthcoming legislative battles will continue to be bitterly contentious. Speaker Johnson will be undergoing a “Baptism by Fire”.