Monday, February 26, 2024

Johnson Stumbles, Deepening Republican Disarray and His Own Challenges

When one of the most stinging defeats of his short tenure arrived on Tuesday, Speaker Mike Johnson had put himself front and center in the House chamber, standing in front of the speaker’s ceremonial chair on the upper tier of the rostrum to gavel it down.

As Republicans tanked their own bid to impeach Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, Mr. Johnson, who minutes before had been buttonholing holdouts on the House floor, was the face of the failure, a slightly panicked look on his face and his cheeks flushed as he announced the loss.

Then the House moved on to a second vote Mr. Johnson had orchestrated, on a $17.6 billion aid package for Israel that he knew would not muster the votes it needed to pass.

It also failed.

The back-to-back defeats highlighted the litany of problems Mr. Johnson inherited the day he was elected speaker and his inexperience in the position, roughly 100 days after being catapulted from the rank and file to the top job in the House. Saddled with a razor-thin margin of control, and a deeply divided conference that has proved repeatedly to be a majority in name only, he has struggled to corral his unruly colleagues and made a series of decisions that only added to his own challenges.

Mr. Johnson on Wednesday was sanguine, painting the dysfunction that had played out the night before as the kind of messy democratic process the founding fathers had envisioned.

“The job will be done and we’re going to govern,” he told reporters just off the House floor. “This country is the greatest country in the history of the world. The entire world is counting upon us. We have steady hands at the wheel. We’ll get through it. Everybody take a deep breath. It’s a long game.”

But the next phase of that game could be even more challenging. In the coming days, Mr. Johnson is likely to face a decision about whether to bring up an aid package for Ukraine that is under consideration in the Senate — a measure that many House Republicans regard as unacceptable. And looming just weeks away is a March 1 deadline to fund the government and avert a partial shutdown, a problem that Republican speakers so far have only been able to answer with stopgap spending bills passed with Democratic votes.

“When you are handed the keys to the kingdom, as it were, when you have the majority, there is an expectation that you will be able to govern, and we’ve just struggled over and over with that,” said Representative Steve Womack, Republican of Arkansas.

The scene that unfolded on the House floor on Tuesday night prompted widespread bafflement among Republicans, who had assumed that Mr. Johnson had pressed ahead with the impeachment vote because he was sure he had the votes to pass it.

“I played by every rule that the party has put in place for how we should not surprise them for a vote,” said Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, one of three Republicans who broke with the party to oppose the move. “We barreled ahead with a vote. We did not need to embarrass ourselves. We could have simply waited until the math was different and gone ahead.”

It appeared that Republican leaders miscalculated both the intensity of opposition to the measure among defectors, as well as the number of Democrats who would be present to vote.

And then Representative Al Green of Texas, a Democrat who had missed previous votes this week after undergoing abdominal surgery, made a surprise break from the hospital to cast a decisive vote dooming the measure.

“We have a razor-thin margin here and every vote counts,” Mr. Johnson said on Wednesday. “Sometimes when you’re counting votes, and people show up when they’re not expected to be in the building, that changes the equation.”

Mr. Johnson had personally spoken to some of the holdouts in what he described as “thoughtful, intellectual discussions” the morning of the vote. And in the minutes before, he had even buttonholed Mr. Gallagher in the cloakroom in an effort to change his mind.

Mr. Gallagher was unmoved.

“Endorsing the principle that you can impeach a cabinet secretary for egregious maladministration in the absence of a crime?” he said on “The Hugh Hewitt Show,” explaining his vote. “We’re pointing a loaded gun at the next Trump administration.”

Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a famed vote counter, couldn’t help but offer unsolicited advice to Mr. Johnson.

“You have to have your votes. Don’t worry about the other side — you have to have your votes,” she said. “You know what’s a majority. If you don’t have that — don’t bring it to the floor.”

Many Republicans concede that Mr. Johnson is in a no-win position. His majority continues to shrink.

He continues to operate under terms negotiated by his predecessor that allow a single lawmaker to call a snap vote to oust him — a mechanism that casts a shadow over the speaker even if no one ever actually puts it into motion.

And because he was catapulted to the top job almost 10 months into this Congress, he has none of the carrots or sticks at his disposal that a speaker typically can dole out at the beginning of the session to buy allegiances, such as plum committee assignments.

He angered some mainstream Republicans months ago when he put forward an Israel aid bill paired with spending cuts — only to infuriate the right wing of the party this week by advancing an Israel aid package without them.

Mr. Johnson had sought to blame Democrats for tanking the bill, calling it a “shameful” vote for the party to take at a time that the nation’s ally needed aid. But he knew well in advance that they would not embrace the measure, which President Biden had threatened to veto and Democratic leaders had denounced as a cynical ploy to try to undercut aid for Ukraine. He also knew that right-wing Republicans were opposed, leading him to bring up the measure under special procedures that allow him to speed a measure to the floor but require a two-thirds majority for passage.

Representative Andy Biggs, Republican of Arizona, said that when Mr. Johnson had initially put forward an Israel aid bill paired with spending cuts, the speaker was “breaking multi-generations of what I call a bad path.”

“By doing that bill last night, I think he took a step back,” Mr. Biggs said.

And that was after the botched impeachment vote.

“The argument would be, ‘You should have pulled it if you didn’t think we’re going to win,’ ” said Representative Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “When you only have one-vote or two-vote margin, you never know what’s going to happen.”

Mr. Hern predicted that Republicans were only “going to see more of this.”

“It’s very difficult,” he said. “The speaker’s pointed this out numerous times. We’re working in unprecedented times” with tiny margins.

Representative Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky, went further, concluding that “getting rid of Speaker McCarthy has officially turned into an unmitigated disaster.”

“All work on separate spending bills has ceased,” Mr. Massie continued, in a post on social media. “Spending reductions have been traded for spending increases. Warrantless spying has been temporarily extended. Our majority has shrunk.”

Kayla Guo and Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.

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