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Political power that comes with caveats and carve-outs is, from the start, fragile. And it’s those caveats and carve-outs that are doing the heavy lifting in the latest headlines about Mike Johnson: The House Speaker Is Safe (for Now).” “Mike Johnson’s Silence on Abortion Leaves House Conservatives Fuming. Again.” “Mike Johnson’s Problems Are Getting Worse.” When a political leader’s explicit limits become so obvious that it’s all anyone can talk about, their strength begins diminishing with a quick-collapsing half-life. It’s the kind of situation you might expect of a Speaker who is clearly past their prime. Johnson hasn’t even reached 100 days at the job.
Before his improbable election to Speaker on Oct. 25, Johnson was an obscure Louisiana legislator who was perhaps best known for his support for Donald Trump’s effort to overturn Joe Biden’s win in 2020. But when House Republicans once again cannibalized their leadership for daring to deal, Johnson suddenly found himself catapulted from relative obscurity into the presidential line of succession. At first, the GOP caucus expressed relief that their leadership debacle was behind them, insisting that Johnson would be the steady hand holding their flimsy majority together. That facade quickly faded.
Judging from the defections, detractors, and open defiance coming from his own nominal allies, Johnson’s grip on the gavel may be far weaker than his predecessor; Kevin McCarthy lasted a grand 269 days, the third-shortest in history. Johnson just hit 90 days in so-called power, and already is staring down a mutiny from his right flank on a collection of complaints as varied as allowing any funding for Ukraine, not pushing hard enough on border security, and even his willingness to work with Democrats to keep the government open while everyone tries to work out a more durable spending deal.
Last week, Johnson cobbled together a short-term spending bill that barely cleared the House, which has a narrow GOP majority that can spare just three votes and remain successful, and that’s only if every other Republican in the chamber votes. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, Johnson’s nominal deputy, is working remotely for at least a few more weeks as he recovers from treatment for his cancer diagnosis, culling one GOP vote. There are also two vacancies from previously GOP districts and another is on deck. The result is the second-smallest majority in the nation’s history. Even an experienced top hand in the House would struggle with this math.
There’s few things worse in D.C. than being perceived as weak, but perceived weakness can often be tougher to shake. Put plainly: Johnson’s prospects for success may now be less promising than those that McCarthy enjoyed in a job he long sought and quickly lost. McCarthy was a well-liked colleague who desperately sought affirmation, while Johnson was thrust into the role after 22 days of balloting and three other nominees failed. In his first weeks, Johnson has struck deals with Democrats that have left his support among his hard-right flank wobbly at best. At its worst, hunting season among conservatives against Johnson makes for good politics and even better fundraising in a place that incentivizes anything that resembles bold truth-telling, even if it’s really a callous pivot against a nominal ally when they’re at their weakest.
In November, Johnson’s fellow Republicans cast 93 votes against the kick-the-can funding move, leaving the House to rely on Democratic votes to keep the lights on. Last week, 13 more Republicans voted against the latest continuing resolution, reaching 106 nays against the compromise that Johnson had struck. This is not moving in the right direction for a Speaker who promised to restore intractable opposition to the Democrats’ agenda as a plank of his candidacy.
Johnson faces real risk from all sides. The House Freedom Caucus railed against both stopgap measures and told their fervent supporters that Johnson was carrying water for Democrats, including boosted spending for Ukraine that was part of a deal forged between Biden and McCarthy. The Freedom Caucus also sought a hardcore boost in funding for border security, an ask that Johnson dismissed because he rightly knew Democrats, who control the Senate, would balk as a backstop and a symbolic spike meant to embarrass Biden and his fellow Democrats.
Among opponents of abortion rights, there is a growing frustration that Johnson won’t attach anti-abortion provisions to spending bills. It’s not just because Democrats would walk away; Republicans in swing districts are telling Johnson’s political aides that votes further limiting protections for abortion rights have proven noxious during the midterms and voters aren’t interested in this far-right agenda. Plus, the Senate requires 60 votes to get anything out of the House to Joe Biden’s desk, and that’s just not going to happen.
At its most cynical, Washington is the global capital of bullying, both among colleagues and often on the international stage. The tendency to cajole then crush allies and enemies alike is inherent to the systems in town. And, given just how openly there are threats to Johnson’s control of the House, no one would make the mistake of calling his position one of strength. The precariousness of his situation became blindingly clear earlier this month when the House couldn’t muster enough support for a rules package—a pro forma measure that merely outlines the basic rules for who can speak when and how long a debate will last. It was an embarrassing procedural hiccup that laid bare Johnson’s wobbly support.
To be sure, Johnson came to power in an impossible position. No one can herd this version of the Republican Party (although the big-money donors appear to be falling into place behind him despite the tumult). From his podcast perch, former Trump strategist Stephen Bannon is gleefully maligning the House’s latest leadership team a failure. One of the loudest players in that chaos-driven caucus, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, is openly musing about a motion-to-vacate play, the procedure by which one rogue lawmaker can trigger a vote of no confidence.
Still, should Republicans decide to look elsewhere, there’s almost no way they find another acceptable alternative. The tricky combination of interests in border security, abortion rights, aid to Ukraine (bad for Republicans) and Israel (good for most of them) is a nearly impossible riddle to solve, leaving many Republicans rationalizing a nay vote that they can promote in conservative media. Even if Republicans opposing the measure lose, there is still perceived strength in standing up to party leadership.
Johnson is about as conservative as they come, but, as ridiculous as it may sound, his willingness to keep the government funded is quickly proving disqualifying. And while Democrats are willing to reach across the aisle to keep the lights on there is considerably less appetite for helping any Republican grab or hold on to the gavel. Privately, senior Democrats are counseling House members that they must draw the line at playing any role in picking a Speaker in a Republican-controlled House. Anyone Democrats might help to take over after Johnson would immediately find themselves viewed as untrusted by much of their own party. That leaves House Democrats in the awkward position of holding disproportionate power that they are unwilling to flex.
Republicans, at least on paper, control one-third of the funding machine for government, but that’s only true if they can agree to steer in unison. That, clearly, is not the case, and Johnson is finding it impossible to even find the tiller of this freighter.
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