July 19, 2024

Can Mike Johnson get enough votes to be House speaker?


It’s not over yet. Three lawmakers voted “present” during a roll-call poll of the conference, and 22 GOP lawmakers were absent, so it’s possible there might be a decisive handful of “Never Mikes” hiding out there.

But the lack of vocal opposition and surfeit of genuine enthusiasm that was aired last night on opposing sides of the House GOP marked a significant shift after three weeks of chaos.

“Mike is … a straightforward leader who can unite us as Republicans!” wrote Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R-Fla.), one of a handful of centrists who engaged in hard-line tactics as the search played out.

Johnson is “the right guy at the right time,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a conservative firebrand who pushed hard in the other direction, per CBS. “He’s got his pulse, I think on where the American people are.”

Said Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who voted to remove Kevin McCarthy as speaker then helped block Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) from replacing him, last night on CNN: “I think he gets it tomorrow.”

Johnson wasn’t anyone’s first choice — far from it. On the first ballot Tuesday morning, he garnered only 34 votes.

But it turns out Johnson doesn’t have nearly as many enemies as some of his higher-profile colleagues. And, much to his benefit, Republicans decided — after the sudden, Donald Trump-assisted termination of Majority Whip Tom Emmer’s speaker candidacy yesterday — that they’re sick and tired of looking like total fools.

“Democracy is messy sometimes, but … this Republican majority is united,” Johnson asserted just before 11 p.m., surrounded by rowdy and relieved colleagues. Republicans would be “ready to govern,” he promised, running the House “like a well-oiled machine.”

Barring a surprise rebellion, Johnson’s ascension saves the House GOP from a parade of unorthodox and borderline unworkable alternatives.

Should he secure the needed votes Wednesday at an expected noon floor vote, out will go such ideas as empowering a caretaker speaker pro tempore, forging a bipartisan governing coalition with Democrats, or — in one fanciful brainstorm bandied about yesterday evening, per NBC — a power-sharing arrangement between McCarthy and Jordan.

Those scenarios will evaporate should Johnson win the gavel. What will fill that void are scads of questions about who Johnson is and how he plans to run the House.

Meet the nominee

First elected to the House in 2016, alongside Trump, the 51-year-old Shreveport native came into elective politics after two decades as a constitutional litigator for various right-wing causes. In the House, Johnson quickly immersed himself in conservative policy circles, winning the chairmanship of the Republican Study Committee in his second term, which in turn served as a springboard to his current position as conference vice chair.

His strengths: As a former RSC chair and current chair of a Judiciary subcommittee, Johnson has a reputation as a bookish wonk with the sort of policy foundation that hasn’t been seen in a potential GOP speaker since Paul Ryan relinquished the gavel.

His lack of outward ambition means he has few avowed enemies inside the GOP. While Jordan, Emmer and Majority Whip Steve Scalise had each amassed a career’s worth of internal enemies, there doesn’t appear to be anyone who hates Johnson enough to sabotage his rise.

And his strong relationships with the hard right could give him a freer hand to govern than McCarthy ever got. (Note that a governing roadmap he circulated Monday floats passing a new continuing resolution, exactly the kind of bill that got McCarthy canned.)

His weaknesses: In terms of House service, Johnson would be the least experienced speaker elected in 140 years. Not only is he in just his fourth term, he has never served in a senior leadership position or as a full committee chair — meaning he hasn’t had a true front-row seat to power, let alone any meaningful relationships with top leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer or President Joe Biden.

As speaker, Johnson would be immediately tasked with hiring a much larger staff, and he’d be thrust to the helm of a massive national fundraising apparatus. In his short House career, he has been decent but not overwhelming on the cash front — raising an average of about $1.3 million per cycle for his recent campaigns, plus a little more for his modest leadership PAC. If elected, he’ll be tasked with raising hundreds of times that amount.

His baggage: Johnson has a contentious history that is going to get picked apart in great detail in the coming days should he manage to close the deal. One episode that is already moving front and center is the pivotal role he played in the GOP effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

Drawing on his experience in constitutional law, Johnson was the lead organizer of an amicus brief, ultimately signed by 125 other House Republicans, backing the Texas-led lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to intervene in the vote counting in key swing states Biden won. (The court declined to hear the case.)

Johnson was pressed on the brief Tuesday night — and was promptly and angrily shouted down by other Republicans. “Next question,” Johnson said to ABC News’ Rachel Scott.

And then there are his views on hot-button social issues such as abortion, civil rights, free speech and more — topics where he has spent decades speaking and litigating — or his approaches on foreign policy, federal spending and other governing flashpoints he’ll quickly have to start managing.

Asked about just one aspect of that — aid to Israel — Johnson declined to engage. “We’re not doing policy tonight,” he said.

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