Biden thrives on personal relations to conduct political business. And with Johnson, he and his team have none. The now-speaker made a stop at the White House for an event honoring the Louisiana State University women’s basketball team in May and attended the congressional picnic in July. It took until Thursday for him to return, meeting with Biden for the first time as leader of the House Republican conference.
“His record is troubling. But what matters is whether there’s a way to do business with him,” said one adviser to the White House, who was granted anonymity to speak freely. “We just don’t know what we have, and we don’t know how long a honeymoon [House Republicans] are going to give the guy.”
Biden and Johnson have never worked closely on any significant legislation. They have little in common personally and even less connection politically.
Pressed on whether Johnson’s past as a “MAGA”-aligned election denier would color the rapport between president and speaker, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said she wouldn’t “prejudge what the relationship is going to be like now that he’s speaker” — but noted that Johnson “has defined himself as that way.”
The plan, for now, is to rely on bipartisan coalitions in the House and Senate and the urgency of a tight deadline to secure the fate of billions of dollars for Israel and Ukraine and the future of the federal budget. The administration is hoping that Johnson earned enough goodwill from his colleagues to negotiate. Or, conversely, that those same colleagues are simply too exhausted from the three-week process of finding a new speaker to mount much of a protest should Johnson cut a deal.
“I hope that he’s influenced by his own colleagues who know how important Ukraine is,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “I’m hoping that he understands the gravity of the position is different than what it was, being the speaker [versus] being just a member.”
Johnson’s election came after a chaotic search for a speaker that White House aides found by turns amusing and worrying.
Those aides said they believed the drama over selecting a speaker strengthened Biden’s political positioning with voters ahead of the 2024 campaign, offering a visceral justification of the president’s warnings that the Trump-dominated GOP is ill-prepared to lead in Congress — much less run the country. But the spectacle also generated anxiety over whether Congress could deliver on a series of major year-end priorities that will require bipartisan buy-in over the next three weeks.
The White House is pushing a nearly $106 billion aid package primarily to support Israel and Ukraine, which has already run into resistance from conservatives opposed to sending more money to Kyiv and unhappy over the administration’s border policies. A separate funding request submitted this week seeks an additional $56 billion for domestic priorities like natural disaster relief and child care. And there’s also the matter of keeping the government running, which will require Congress to strike some form of broader spending deal by Nov. 17.
Since his election Wednesday, Johnson has been largely noncommittal on how he plans to approach those issues. But in a letter to House Republicans earlier this week, he outlined plans to seek another stopgap budget agreement that would run through January or even April, in an attempt to head off plans at the White House and in the Senate to pass a Senate-written bill.
That proposal, along with Johnson’s prior staunch opposition to Ukraine aid, has worried officials eager to escape the week-to-week turmoil that’s dominated Washington for the last few months.
“He has not been tested. He hasn’t been in leadership,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a mainstay of Democratic leadership for the last three decades. The question facing Biden, he added, “is whether [Johnson] has an intent to work in an honest way and in a country-view way on solving the problems that confront our country.”
The White House is wasting little time trying to make an impression on the new speaker. Biden called Johnson shortly afterward in an initial show of openness to their partnership and, in a statement, urged the House GOP to find a bipartisan path to “address our national security needs and to avoid a shutdown in 22 days.”
On Thursday, top Biden budget official Shalanda Young, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and legislative affairs chief Shuwanza Goff hosted Johnson, House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries and other senior House members to make a case for the administration’s aid package. And Biden himself used the opportunity to talk with Johnson face-to-face before the Situation Room meeting began.
Biden allies anticipate that the president in the coming weeks will lean on the other three congressional leaders — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — to encourage Johnson to break with House conservatives and back plans for Ukraine funding and a clean spending deal, perhaps even going as far as summoning the group to the White House to personally press the point.
Some of Johnson’s Democratic colleagues expressed optimism the new speaker would prove a good-faith partner despite his personal views; even Jeffries offered measured praise on Thursday, calling him an “able and capable adversary” willing to find common ground.
“There’s something inherently likable about Mike Johnson,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), while acknowledging few know how he will behave as speaker. “He’ll probably get along with Biden on a personal level.”
But within the president’s orbit, there’s little expectation that the process will be easy. Johnson still presides over the same fractious conference that mutinied against his predecessor’s efforts to keep the government open. He’s also backed by a conservative wing that wants to cut Ukraine off regardless of the battlefield consequences.
And though Republicans are united behind him now, Johnson may only be able to stray so far from his base in search of a deal before he too finds himself in jeopardy.
“You only get so many chips,” the adviser to the White House said. “And this guy is starting with a really short stack.”