Although it took far too long – over three weeks – the United States House of Representatives is finally functioning again. Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana, the little-known vice chair of the GOP conference, managed to win on his first floor vote.
It is a welcome development for the country and for Washington’s ability to govern. Unfortunately, the selection does not guarantee that the United States will be able to swiftly come to the aid of its close allies, including Israel, as well as fund its own government and sustain domestic strength.
After conservative firebrand Jim Jordan’s third failed attempt at becoming Speaker of the House of Representatives last week, the Republican conference dropped him as their nominee.
This led to a new open nominating process that started with nine candidates from across the Republican spectrum and ended with moderate-leaning Majority Whip Tom Emmer as the nominee.
However, within four hours, his bid was shot down by the MAGA wing of the party and he never made it to the House floor. Right-wing representatives were following the lead of former President Donald Trump who signaled he was against Emmer and even made calls to House members expressing his opposition.
The root of the MAGA hostility towards Emmer’s nomination was his vote to certify President Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral college victory. Some GOP members also singled out Emmer for supporting same-sex marriage, and in an appalling exchange a colleague even questioned his Christian faith.
After Emmer’s withdrawal on Tuesday, the Republican conference miraculously coalesced around the lesser known Mike Johnson – a deeply conservative member and mentee of Jordan who was backed by the far-right of the party – and he was elected speaker on Wednesday afternoon without losing a single Republican vote on the floor.
While it is undoubtedly positive that the American people finally have a Speaker of the House again, the Republican Party is playing with fire by choosing someone with little leadership experience and a rigid hard-right track record. Democrats are not innocent either, as their decision to join the motion to vacate on Kevin McCarthy led to an extreme conservative gaining the speaker’s gavel
Johnson is extremely conservative on social issues, as he voted against federal protections for same-sex marriage and has repeatedly supported and co-sponsored national abortion ban bills. In fact, he is the first former chair of the deeply conservative Republican Study Committee to become speaker.
Furthermore, Johnson was a prominent election denier in 2020 and the legal architect of the Electoral College objections that were denied by the Supreme Court.
It is clear that Trump and his MAGA acolytes got exactly what they wanted, as one of their own is now the most powerful Republican in Washington. If their victory could not be any more clear, Rep. Matt Gaetz emphasized it with glee on Steve Bannon’s podcast, “If you don’t think that moving from Kevin McCarthy to MAGA Mike Johnson shows the ascendance of this movement and where the power in the Republican Party truly lies, then you’re not paying attention.”
House Democrats are already seeking to paint Johnson as “Jim Jordan in a suit.” Make no mistake, Johnson’s extreme positions along with his lack of fundraising skill compared to his predecessor will hurt congressional Republicans’ electoral chances in 2024. While former Speaker Kevin McCarthy raised over $100 million for Republicans during the 2022 election cycle, Speaker Johnson has raised just $553,013 total this cycle.
This dynamic will certainly create challenges for Republican congressmen from moderate districts in California who benefitted from McCarthy’s robust political operation. Along with losing out on fundraising opportunities, Johnson’s extreme right-wing social positions will not play well in these swing districts.
There is also some doubt over whether Johnson will be on the side of public opinion on upcoming legislation to strengthen our allies and ensure we avoid a government shutdown that could have catastrophic economic consequences.
Johnson voted against the current continuing resolution, which has reached its halfway mark, and he has been one of the staunchest opponents to sending aid to Ukraine.
It is clear the American people want Congress to support our allies as they battle terrorism and authoritarianism, and Johnson and the GOP must show voters they can be trusted. A poll this week from The Economist/YouGov found 61% of registered voters think the U.S. should maintain or increase military aid to Ukraine and 83% of registered voters think the U.S. should maintain or increase military aid to Israel.
While President Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries line up behind a supplemental bill that will send military aid to Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan, as well as new funding to help secure the southern border, there is significant opposition among House Republicans to additional spending, especially for Ukraine.
The ultra conservative Johnson mirrors the right flank of his caucus on these issues, but to pass real solutions to the pressing challenges facing Congress he must find a middle ground that Democrats and Senate Republicans can accept. Otherwise, moderate Republicans will be forced to go around him and work closely with their Democratic counterparts.
The first big test for Speaker Johnson is in less than a month when he will either let the government close down or work on a bipartisan basis to keep America as a functioning democracy at a crucial moment for our allies. Positively, Johnson seems to be moving towards the middle in his new leadership role, as he has proposed a second continuing resolution that would last through January, albeit with little detail about the spending numbers.
In order to have a successful speakership and meet the needs of the United States at this critical inflection point, it would be wise for Johnson to moderate his views and seek productive compromise with centrist Republicans and Democrats. Speaker Johnson must put policy over politics to bolster our allies and protect our economy.
Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.