Speaker Mike Johnson avoided a shutdown. He won’t avoid the conservative blowback.
After House Republicans ousted former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) in early October because he put a stopgap government funding bill on the House floor, Johnson isn’t at risk of losing his new job for doing the same thing.
But that doesn’t mean conservatives aren’t deeply disappointed that Johnson opted not to barrel toward a shutdown in some doomed gambit to extract spending cuts from Democrats.
Ahead of the vote on the so-called “continuing resolution” on Wednesday, Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) called himself a “hard no” and said he doesn’t know how “any Republican in good conscience can vote to continue to support this administration at the current funding levels.”
“There’s so many things that are wrong with it, and I wish the speaker had chosen a different path and we’ll see how it unfolds,” Roy said.
The Freedom Caucus, of which Roy is an influential member, also overwhelmingly opposed the measure to simply extend government funding until Jan. 19 for some programs, and Feb. 2 for others. That “laddered” approach was a strategy actually concocted by the Freedom Caucus, though members of the group seemed to envision laying down even more funding deadlines to actually create a ladder—not the two-deadline stepstool that actually passed.
The vote breakdown itself did Johnson no favors. The legislation passed 336-95, a strong vote that would normally demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of the House supported this path.
But Johnson might have been better off with more opposition—as long as that opposition had come from Democrats.
Just two Democrats voted against the CR, a point which Roy nodded to online after the vote. Meanwhile, 93 House Republicans opposed the stopgap measure, three more than opposed the September continuing resolution which cost McCarthy his gavel.
But even the Republicans who opposed this stopgap gambit were willing to give Johnson a bit of a break—at least, just this once.
Rep. Bob Good (R-VA), who voted to boot McCarthy in October, said he was “vehemently opposed” to Johnson’s proposal, but made it clear that he was going to give Johnson a pass on it.
“We want to support our speaker. We respect him. We admire him,” he said.
Good likened Johnson to a second string quarterback put in the game during the fourth quarter with the team losing badly.
“So while we support him—and you know, we certainly don’t want to cut our quarterback, we want to keep playing our quarterback—but we want him to call the plays and give us a chance to win,” Good said.
Another member who voted to remove McCarthy, Rep. Tim Burchett (R-TN), also opposed the stopgap measure, but he blamed the former speaker for squandering his time atop the House without delivering key spending cuts.
“Speaker Johnson’s had two weeks; our prior administration had since January,” Burchett said.
To explain why Johnson seemed to be getting such different treatment from McCarthy for the same transgressions, Burchett’s behavior earlier in the day offered a tidy metaphor.
The Tennessee congressman managed to almost get in a fight on Tuesday with McCarthy, after the former speaker allegedly elbowed Burchett in a hallway, causing Burchett to chase after him. McCarthy denies that he intentionally hit Burchett, simply framing it as an accident.
Where Johnson is widely described by Republicans as a man of honesty and integrity, few seemed to buy McCarthy’s story—much less Burchett. “It’s indicative of the type of person that he is, and what he’s shown,” he told CNN on Tuesday night, adding that McCarthy had not called him to clear the air despite the former speaker saying he would.
Whether Johnson can maintain that credibility as conservative anger simmers—and the party leadership inevitably struggles to corral support for spending bills early next year—will determine whether he suffers the same fate as McCarthy.
Football references kept getting tossed around Tuesday as conservatives sought to explain the situation. Freedom Caucus member Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA) said he totally disagreed “with this play call.”
But Higgins also spoke highly of the novice speaker—even offering to take “17 bullets” for the man—and was willing to give him a pass on the stopgap resolution, chalking the lack of cuts up to a lack of time.
“I’m 1,000 percent supportive of Mike Johnson, the man, the speaker, my colleague, my friend, beautiful American, very conservative man. And I’m sympathetic to the situation that he’s in,” the fellow Louisiana Republican said.
Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) voted no on the resolution, wishing the House put the “hot potato” of the spending debate in the Senate’s hands, but he told The Daily Beast he doesn’t fault Johnson at all.
“People trust him and he’s really only been on the job 19 days,” Norman said. “He’s gonna do great things.”
Rep. Eli Crane (R-AZ), another one of the eight Republicans who voted to remove McCarthy, said much of the conference agreed to give the speaker “a little bit of a grace period.” He thinks Johnson is still protected by the honeymoon.
But Crane said he expects Johnson to take up spending cuts as the House considers future appropriations bills. And if that doesn’t happen, Crane suggested the so-called motion to vacate—the procedural lever that allows one member to call a vote to remove the speaker—is still an option for detractors, just as it was for them to topple McCarthy.
“Speaker Johnson is a very likable guy. I think most of the conference likes him. At the end of the day, this isn’t about a popularity contest. This is about trying to deliver what we promised our voters,” Crane said.
Asked if the motion to vacate is still on the table, Crane said it was “possible.”
Johnson may largely be getting a pass on this spending fight, but the resolution is temporary. The new deadlines at the beginning of next year will come quickly, and Republicans appear to be setting themselves up for either a grand bargain with Democrats or yet another shutdown.
The stated purpose of the government funding extension is that it will give House Republicans more time to finish their appropriations bills, which GOP lawmakers are writing at levels below the spending numbers that congressional Republicans agreed to with President Joe Biden earlier this year.
The problem for Johnson, however, is that it’s unclear whether Republicans can actually pass their appropriations bills.
Conservatives—who want even deeper cuts and a number of controversial policy riders—have already halted progress on multiple spending bills, and the remaining spending bills could present more challenges. While the current plan is to pass all of their appropriations bills and then pressure the Democratic-controlled Senate to either pass their own bills—which is extremely unlikely—or to conference legislation between the two chambers.
Democrats have no intention of going back on the deal that Republicans already reached earlier this year to cap spending levels, and they’re counting on GOP dysfunction preventing them from actually compromising.
The thought from Democrats is that Republicans won’t actually be able to pass all of their appropriations bills, meaning if they waltz into a shutdown, it will be the other side taking the entirety of the blame.
House Republicans agree with that outlook. Rep. Troy Nehls (R-TX), a House Freedom Caucus member who backed Johnson’s plan, forecasted the GOP will be held responsible for a shutdown though he thinks Democrats should take the heat.
“We know the dishonest media, they’re gonna blame the Republican Party for shutting down the government, even if it’s Chuck Schumer. Chuck, Chuck, Chuck, everything is Chuck Schumer,” Nehls said. “He’s the one that has failed, doesn’t take up our appropriation bills, none of them.”
Even if House Republicans did get it together, Democrats think their position is untenable—particularly if the Senate passes a series of spending compromises between the two parties. Democrats think the House will have to take up those measures.
Part of the problem for Johnson is that Republicans have grown accustomed to treating procedural votes as policy votes. To get a bill onto the floor for consideration, the party in charge generally needs a rule limiting debate and the sorts of amendments that can be considered on the legislation—otherwise a host of proposals are liable to find a majority as an amendment, but jeopardize the overall passage of the bill.
Because Republicans lack unanimity on these rule votes, Johnson actually brought this stopgap bill to the floor under “suspension of the rules”—meaning amendments weren’t allowed, but the measure needed a two-thirds majority to pass. Democrats were happy to supply their votes for the stopgap, because—as Roy pointed out—the bill was simply an extension of the existing policies and spending they support. But any future partisan legislation that Johnson wants to bring could have real challenges.
There are a handful of Republicans who are extremely disagreeable when it comes to spending legislation. Not only do they oppose the bills; they oppose bringing the bills to the floor.
If that trend continues, Johnson may have to rely on Democrats to either support rules—which won’t happen if the legislation is truly partisan—or have to bring bills to the floor under suspension. If he does the latter, he’ll need substantial Democratic support anyway.
In short, the new speaker is in a bind. And he has yet to level with Republicans about the depth of the problem.
Johnson still insists Republicans can enact spending cuts if they just stick together and pass bills through the House.
But as Nehls quipped, Republicans have shown sticking together is a near-impossible task.
“You couldn’t get 217 of us, today, to agree it’s Tuesday,” Nehls said.