Once Congress returns next year, Johnson will have big problems to resolve: government funding that starts to expire Jan. 19, the potential border-Ukraine fight and warring surveillance proposals that are bitterly splitting the GOP conference.
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), who challenged McCarthy for speaker in January, said Johnson’s approach to the surveillance fight was more like “appeasement” than leadership — and that it could reflect the Louisianan’s leadership style and not just the tricky battle lines of the spy fight.
“When you try to please both [sides], you never please anybody,” Biggs said. “Maybe that’s just his personality? I don’t know. My thought was always we could shore him up, but I’m not so sure.”
Conservatives aren’t close to entertaining an effort to oust Johnson, given that McCarthy’s departure will soon shrink their majority to just two seats. But GOP hard-liners are clearly displeased with his attempts to stay above the fray, and they’re poised to make real trouble for him if he doesn’t start making hard calls. Of course, even if he does start choosing sides, he risks blowback of a different kind — particularly if he advances proposals that conservatives dislike.
Once the House returns to session, it will have less than two weeks before its first government funding deadline, with the second coming on Feb. 2. The House left town on Thursday without even reaching a bicameral agreement on how much total money to spend.
Asked when Johnson should take a hands-on approach to the funding fight, senior appropriator Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) jokingly replied: “Yesterday.”
“He’s trying to satisfy all of our conference, which I don’t know that he can. But I think he’s trying to do that. He’s listened to everybody,” Simpson said. “But you gotta remember this is the first time he’s been in this role, not even as an assistant majority leader, so it’s like drinking from Niagara Falls.”
When it comes to negotiations on pairing border changes with Ukraine and Israel aid, Johnson has called for the inclusion of the House GOP’s immigration bill — a conservative plan that would go nowhere in the Senate — while carefully avoiding any commitment to taking up a deal that has yet to materialize. The House has largely stayed on the sidelines of those talks.
If he bends at all toward the Senate, however, Johnson is likely to face more blowback from his right.
“We don’t know how to negotiate with the Senate. … The institution has to be more proactive,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.). “We could have probably solved the Israel thing already. We could probably have done the border thing easier.”
“It helps if the speaker is involved,” Bacon added, while acknowledging that the House has been sidelined in major talks long before Johnson’s ascension.
So far, the Louisiana Republican has relayed to the White House, the Senate and to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that in order for the bill to be approved by the House, it has to include transformative change in border policy, provide accountability and oversight of Ukraine dollars, and get a clear articulation of the strategy from White House on what it will take for Ukraine to win its war with Russia.
His coming to-do list doesn’t just include spending or Ukraine aid, which Johnson also has asked for more oversight of before advancing any ultimate bipartisan deal. Congress has to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration and will return to the surveillance fight in April.
In many of those cases, Johnson has to quickly get up to speed on policy fights that he didn’t have to concern himself with before. And he has to do it while navigating what’s soon to become a two-seat majority — until the February special election to replace George Santos. Should a Democrat win that contest, Republican control of the House would hang by a one-seat thread.
Among some GOP colleagues, Johnson’s handling of the spy powers fight drew unflattering comparisons to a spat of 2018 immigration infighting that still rankles Republicans.
“Mike’s done a good job listening to people … but to execute, you’ve got to smash people together in the room and say this is what we’re going to do,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), one of three conservatives McCarthy installed on the powerful Rules Committee that determines which bills come to the floor.
Faced with the same surveillance squabble that Johnson’s encountering, Roy said he would have told both sides to “go sort this out” to select an option for a floor vote, or “I’m going to pick one.”
But despite that frustration on the right, conservatives argue Johnson is still better than his predecessor.
One of the right flank’s biggest complaints about McCarthy was their limited window on his decision-making for the conference, on top of what they saw as an unreliable tendency to go back on his word.
“McCarthy just didn’t tell the truth,” said Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), adding that the “uniparty [establishment] doesn’t know what to do with” Johnson yet.
McCarthy allies, who still argue he was unfairly ousted, note that the former speaker stepped into the role with years of leadership experience that Johnson doesn’t have, not to mention the added benefit of time to vet his strategies. And some argue it’s too early in Johnson’s tenure to truly compare his style to McCarthy’s.
“It’s tough. Somebody who came into the position the way he did — unlike Kevin, Kevin knows everybody,” Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio) said. “It’s taking [Johnson] a little bit longer and [he’s] taking the time to try to make sure he’s not making any decisions hastily.”
McCarthy himself applauded his successor’s performance so far during an exit interview this week. The California Republican advised the new speaker to not be afraid of the internal rebellion that ousted him from the top job.
Chaos within the House GOP “isn’t Johnson’s problem to fix,” McCarthy said. “This is the conference’s problem to fix.”
Yet some corners of the conference appear uninterested in taking chaos fully off the table. Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) — known as a leadership antagonist and set to be the next chair of the Freedom Caucus starting in January — is already issuing warnings to Johnson.
Good predicted this week that if Johnson fights for conservative policy wins next year, the hard-line bloc would be his “greatest cheerleaders.” But if he agrees to compromises that the right flank takes issue with, Good told reporters, “then the Freedom Caucus will absolutely be a problem.”
Mia McCarthy contributed to this report.