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Speaker Johnson reaches a crossroads in leading an unruly House GOP conference

Just a few weeks into his tenure as House Speaker, Mike Johnson (R-La.) called Rep. Max L. Miller into his office to talk about how to fund the government as new deadlines loomed in early 2024. In the meeting, the Ohio Republican brought up his displeasure that Johnson’s first act as speaker was to pair cuts to the Internal Revenue Service with aid for Israel, which had just been attacked by Hamas.

Johnson was aiming to show his conservative bona fides, but the move rankled some in the conference, including Miller, who knew the Democratic controlled Senate would never accept the bill and aid for Israel would continue to languish. Johnson — who was elevated from a Republican backbencher to speaker overnight and has just a few deep relationships with his colleagues — eventually asked Miller what he wanted to see from leadership.

It’s a question colleagues say Johnson is still struggling with. Just shy of his 100th day serving as Speaker of the House, Johnson has had to gather the reins of an unruly conference that at every turn has tested his ability to steady them. A proud staunch conservative, Johnson had believed his reputation within the House Freedom Caucus would help manage their demands in a way that former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) could not.

Now Johnson is facing the most critical moment in his short tenure with less than a week until funding runs out for 20 percent of the government. Does he shun the small but vocal far-right faction in favor of governing and risk losing his speakership, or does he appease the hard-liners and shut down the government without concessions from Democrats? His attempts to please most members, while not turning his back on his conservative background, have left some lawmakers with the impression that Johnson remains too indecisive or naive for the job.

How Johnson navigates striking deals with a Democratic Senate and White House that an overwhelming majority of House Republicans would support is being closely watched by members of his conference, who are keen to see how the negotiating novice handles the difficult political landscape. The drama is playing out at a crucial time for House Republicans, who entered an election year hoping to prove they can govern, while Congress faces two government funding deadlines over the next month, demands to secure the southern border in exchange for providing assistance to Ukraine, and other policy issues that must be addressed by the spring.

Many Republicans acknowledge the onerous, if not impossible, task Johnson has taken on while learning on the job. Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) said the conference put Johnson “in a boat that’s on fire,” while Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) said the speaker — and a majority of governing-minded Republicans — is limited by myriad, conflicting demands from the far-right flank, making it “hard to worry about bailing water when you got the alligators sniffing at you.”

“[Whether] your name is Kevin McCarthy or Mike Johnson, this job is incredibly hard,” Miller said in an interview. He echoed what many Republicans across the conference have privately admitted: “I think a lot of us feel lost.”

In conversations with over two dozen Republican lawmakers and aides, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to outline closed-door meetings and private conversations, it became clear that frustration is growing with Johnson. Governing conservatives, who are tired of the antics of the far right, fear he remains too focused on appeasing them when they won’t be happy regardless of the decisions he makes. But Johnson can’t ignore hard-liners, either. He faces mounting pressure from the emboldened right flank — that is privately telegraphing plans to gum up the legislative process on the House floor — and could face efforts to remove him from the speakership over how he handles negotiations on spending and border security.

In a meeting early last week with members from across the conference in the speaker’s suite, House Freedom Caucus chairman Bob Good (R-Va.) laid into Johnson for the $1.66 trillion price tag on the deal he struck with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that largely mirrors one struck between McCarthy and President Biden last year, according to three people familiar with the meeting. Johnson and other Republicans retorted by asking Good how House Republicans get out of a possible shutdown if Senate Democrats and Republicans won’t return to the negotiating table. When Good implied that Johnson was abandoning his far-right principles, Johnson grew visibly frustrated, telling Good that no one can challenge his conservative credentials, especially when he’s trying to do the right thing by keeping the government operable.

A group of 12 Republicans protested the deal on the House floora day later, freezing consideration of any legislation until Johnson showed willingness to understand their demands to cut spending and add border security to the fiscal fight. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) went further, threatening to try to remove the speaker if he pursues tying border security fixes to funding for Ukraine, which she vehemently opposes and most of the House and Senate are pursuing.

Still, the majority of his caucus is rooting for Johnson.

“I think he’s doing the best job he can,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) said. “He’s learning and he’s got growing pains, and we’re here to support him. He’s got all the talent and the character to do this job.”

But the reality is, Johnson currently has only a three-seat majority. Many Republican priorities have died in the Democratic controlled Senate, and the tight House margin will require Johnson to lean on Democratic votes if Republicans do not unite — a redline for the far right.

In an hour-long meeting Thursday, far-right members urged Johnson to back out of the deal until the Senate accepts Republicans’ border security demands or agrees to more spending cuts. Though he made no commitment, Johnson expressed openness to reporters after the meeting by saying they were “having thoughtful conversations about funding options and priorities.”

Johnson’s apparent willingness to consider changing the parameters of the deal squandered an entire week with a clock ticking toward a government shutdown and shook many within the conference, some of whom then met with him to urge him to stick with the deal. In a Friday meeting with over a dozen swing-district and moderate Republicans, the group confronted Johnson that his entertaining of the hard-liners’s demands suggests that his word cannot be trusted — both by those in the room and likely Democratic leaders who they must work with. The group worked to convince him that he has their support, pledging to protect Johnson if he stuck to his deal. Hours later, Johnson made a statement saying he was committed to the deal.

But some were confused when Johnson in a closed-door meeting simultaneously said he would be okay with a shutdown if Republicans could get Democratic concessions. It was opposite to the message he had telegraphed repeatedly throughout the week, including to the far right, as he routinely said in private meetings that a shutdown wouldn’t be good for the country.

“Either you are for it or you’re not,” one moderate Republican said before adding that many colleagues have grown tired of Johnson’s “I’m for it, unless” statements.

The lack of an apparent game plan in the House meant members left Washington on Friday not knowing what to tell their constituents about a possible government shutdown. Furthermore, many worry if they will ever have a united agenda to sell ahead of an election where Republicans must prove they are able to govern and deserve another term in the majority.

“I think you’ll get to the point where he’s just going to have to say, ‘Hey, look, you’re either with me or you’re not. And if you’re not with me, we’re gonna have to go find the votes to shore this thing up and do the work for the American people,’” Womack said. “Remember, he’s Speaker of the House. He’s not just speaker of the Republican Party.”

Lawmakers are set to hear Johnson’s plan to avoid a partial shutdown Sunday evening, when he is expected to argue for an extension of current funding levels until March 1 and 8, according to a person familiar with the plans. The Senate is largely united in passing a short-term extension of current funding levels until March, which would give both chambers time to negotiate and pass the necessary 12 full-year appropriation bills. Hard-liners have pushed Johnson to support a stopgap bill with provisions that most of them already rejected last September, while pragmatic lawmakers have pushed for the March deadlines.

Widespread frustration with Johnson began to bubble up in December, just over a month into his job. Hard-liners were already angry that he extended government funding into the new year with the help of Democrats without extracting concessions, ending the short grace period they had given him. They erupted after provisions related to abortion and transgender people were stripped from the annual defense bill during negotiations with the Senate, which was ultimately passed with Democratic support and signed into law.

And his goodwill began to erode among some of the more centrist Republicans when he didn’t choose between two competing Republican foreign surveillance bills. Johnson eventually pulled both from consideration, providing little guidance on how the conference will address the issue before the bill expires in April. Moderate and swing-district Republicans joined hard-liners for the first time in sinking a procedural hurdle on a Justice Department appropriations bill in protest of far-right provisions.

And while he’s in the middle of a challenging funding fight, pressure on Johnson is expected to ramp up even more, with demands to enact stringent border security policies.

Johnson will continue to be compared to McCarthy until he finds his way and gains deep respect within the conference. Many Republicans say that they appreciated how McCarthy would come to meetings with a proposed plan that he was open to changing based on member feedback. Johnson’s style, members say, is one that starts with listening and gathering input from all sides but then struggles to make a decision.

“He uses this process of thinking out loud through the options,” a Johnson ally said before acknowledging that doing so could make him appear indecisive. “He wasn’t selected [as speaker] so he could jam decisions down our throats — and he couldn’t if he tried. So he’s got to ease us into all of it. I think as he eases us into it, he’s easing himself into it, and that’s an okay thing.”

Johnson has repeatedly defended his approach, noting last week that it is one that maintains his commitment to “decentralizing the speaker’s office and making this a member-driven process.”

Some rank-and-file conservatives believe Johnson would have been better served had he held such conversations as negotiations continued over the holiday break before he made his decision on the deal with Schumer. Johnson did hold individual calls with a broad swath of the conference. But when a top-line spending number was finally announced, he did not hold the usual courtesy conference call with all members before his decision was made public, which many see as standard practice to get buy in from members.

The Johnson ally rebutted the premise that he takes too long to make decisions or does not survey enough members before making one, stressing, “I think he’s keenly aware that whatever decision he makes sucks.”

Johnson remains the only House Republican in this Congress to have garnered unanimous support to become speaker. Having never irritated his colleagues on a large scale as a rank-and-file lawmaker, Johnson has learned who his allies could be as he navigates governing. In recent weeks he has more than once gathered roughly 20 Republicans from across the conference to float ideas and seek consensus. He has texted his thanks to some of them for defending him in meetings and encourages them to share their position in often hostile conference gatherings.

“I would argue that this job is a tough job to do on-the-job training,” one conservative lawmaker said. “McCarthy had a core who protected him at all costs. Mike Johnson doesn’t do that. And I think that’s really what Mike’s problem is. He doesn’t know who he can turn to give him advice that is relevant.”

Many say Johnson is good-natured and kind, which left him with no enemies in the conference as he ascended to speaker. But many also think his personality leads him to want to make all factions and congressional leaders happy — an impossible task. Pragmatic lawmakers acknowledge that when Johnson gets into a room with “the four corners” of leadership — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), and Schumer — he realizes, as another moderate Republican lawmaker said, “He has to do something and just spouting the objectives on the far right isn’t getting anything done,” especially when all of the other leaders already agree on an objective.

Members of the Freedom Caucus, however, view spending and the southern border as existential crises that are worth fighting for until concessions are made by Democrats, including if that means shutting down the government or losing the majority.

“People want to give Mike the benefit of the doubt because he’s straight up. But he’s got to get tough on negotiations. You have to be willing to walk away,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), a member of the Freedom Caucus. “That’s what the tough part [is] that I think he may struggle with, but he can learn that.”

Other hard-liners are less forgiving as they continue discussions about how to make his job more difficult or possibly ousting him from the speakership entirely. That lack of unity is what worries a majority of rank-and-file Republicans, who recognize that they cannot enter negotiations or deploy pressure tactics against Senate Democrats and the White House while divided.

McCarthy was able to secure a meeting with Biden after House Republicans nearly unanimously passed a conservative bill that would have averted the debt ceiling crisis last year, proving Democrats wrong who believed Republicans could not reach consensus. It’s something that they have been unable to achieve on funding since.

“If we just band together, we’d be okay,” Miller said. “The speaker has no leverage because we’re not unified … Right now, we’re a little bit broken.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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