Speaker Mike Johnson’s next set of challenges, explained

On Wednesday, Congress finally reopened. After more than three weeks without a speaker, the elevation of the previously obscure Mike Johnson of Louisiana to lead the House was a signal that finally the chamber could get back to governing. In the next day, members forced votes next week on two resolutions of censure and one of expulsion. In other words, things aren’t getting less weird anytime soon.

But they won’t be returning to the status quo under former Speaker Kevin McCarthy either. There will now be a new normal as Congress has to deal with pressing issues. The government will shut down at midnight on November 18, Israel and Hamas are at war after the horrific attack Hamas launched on October 7, much of Ukraine is still occupied by Russia, and lawmakers are grappling with how to address the near-record numbers of undocumented immigrants entering the country.

The House will face this new normal with a weak speaker in a scenario that one veteran Republican insider compared to “Lord of the Flies” after the defenestration spree of the past three weeks that led not only to McCarthy’s ouster but to Republicans electing and then rejecting three speaker-designates in turn.

Pat Fallon of Texas expressed the hope that Johnson — whom he praised as having “a lot of likability, a lot of authenticity, he is honest, he’s talented”— would be successful. In his view, “if Mike Johnson succeeds, America succeeds. You know, we have a functioning House and a functioning government. We have a divided government, so nobody’s gonna get everything they want. But, you know, we need some conservative wins to make sure that the taxpayers’ money is well accounted for.”

Then again, it could be argued under those circumstances that McCarthy’s debt ceiling deal in the spring was a win, as Republicans won spending caps and permitting reform in exchange for allowing the United States to pay its debts for the next 18 months. The result prompted an immediate right-wing rebellion and set the table for the California Republican’s ultimate downfall earlier in October.

The challenge for Johnson is that he is going to face one tripwire with his conference even before he’s fully moved into his new office: the matter of Ukraine aid, opposition to which has become a shibboleth for many on the MAGA right. The Biden administration has proposed a major funding bill that would combine aid to Israel and Ukraine as well as funding for border security.

Don Bacon of Nebraska, a moderate in the Republican conference, thought Johnson could win support for aid to the European nation from the House despite the widespread opposition from many House Republicans, including Johnson himself. “I think he’s gonna do it,” said Bacon. “But there’s gonna have to be some good take on the border. And I think the president just can’t say, ‘I want X amount of money.’ … He’s got to say why he wants it and make the case.”

However, it seemed likely that, at the very least, the House would separate the aid to each individual US ally rather than combining, as the Biden administration proposed. Johnson told Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Thursday, “Our consensus among House Republicans is that we need to bifurcate those issues.”

Johnson insisted that “we’re not going to abandon [Ukraine,] but we have a responsibility, a stewardship responsibility over the precious treasure of the American people, and we have to make sure that the White House is providing the people with some accountability for the dollars.”

Already, he seemed to be getting slightly more breathing room from Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who was the leader of the effort to oust McCarthy and has been an implacable opponent of aid to Ukraine. Gaetz left some wiggle room about whether it should receive a vote, saying, “They should definitely be separate questions. We have a lot of members who want to vote for Ukraine funding. And so that may be a vote that they are able to bring to bear through regular order.”

However, Gaetz cautioned that because a recent amendment on Ukraine aid did not receive the support of a majority of House Republicans, future legislation on aid to the Eastern European country should not receive any consideration in the House because it violated the Hastert Rule, the recent tradition among House Republicans that all legislation should have the support of “a majority of the majority.” He noted that “the last time Ukraine funding was on the floor of the House … [a] majority of the majority voted against it. That usually ends a measure’s prospects for consideration.”

Yet despite the drama around Ukraine, the fight over government funding is likely to be far less dramatic than past ones. McCarthy’s ouster was the result of his efforts to avoid a government shutdown by simply continuing current funding levels for the next six weeks at the beginning of October. Not only is Johnson enjoying a honeymoon period among his colleagues after the weeks of internecine warfare among House Republicans, he also starts off with fresh credibility among those who were most opposed to McCarthy to keep the government open for at least a few more months.

As Gaetz, the leader of the hard-right bloc that was opposed to the former speaker, put it, “Kevin McCarthy wanted to govern by continuing resolution to get us to the next continuing resolution. I think Mike Johnson has a lot more credibility [as a] … bridge to single-subject spending bills, not a bridge to just the old ways of Washington.”

But, for whatever criticism that there was of the “old ways of Washington,” at least everyone knew what they were. Everyone was working from the same playbook, and there was at least a basic set of agreed-upon norms. All of that has frayed after the last few chaotic weeks, and the challenges have only grown more complex. It’s a recipe for more weirdness to come.

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