For three weeks, watching Republicans in disarray was fun.
But now that the Grand Old Party has united to elect a speaker with a record of election denialism, extreme social conservatism, opposition to Ukraine aid, and opposition to the recent bill to keep the government open, the Democratic popcorn party is officially over.
Republicans are primarily responsible for their own mess, but 208 Democrats did help the cause by joining with eight far-right Republicans to strip the Speaker’s gavel from Kevin McCarthy. Did the gambit pay off?
The best argument that Democrats gained a political advantage from the chaos is that voting for the new speaker, Mike Johnson, stripped the moderate veneer off House Republicans who represent districts won by Joe Biden. Perhaps, but those same Republicans already have to deal with their likely presidential nominee, Donald Trump. The 2024 election will turn on Trump’s record of extremism far more than the little-known Louisianian now wielding the gavel.
My argument has long been that what best serves Democrats is a healthy economy, and all that our deeply divided government can do at the moment—having already averted a devastating debt default—is avoid a protracted government shutdown that could cut short the current stretch of steady Gross Domestic Product growth.
After weeks of trying to appease far-right Republicans with appropriations bills that cut spending more than the levels agreed upon in the bipartisan debt limit deal, Kevin McCarthy rammed through a last-minute bill last month that kept the government open through November 17. That sped his demise because not only did the far-right accuse him of betrayal, but the weeks of kabuki also fed Democratic mistrust.
I interpreted those events differently. While Democrats were once terrified at the prospect of Republican leaders purposefully wrecking the economy to undermine their president, McCarthy showed his unwillingness to provoke a reckless shutdown. In turn, ousting him was a gamble. Would the next speaker, likely installed with the blessing of the most reckless members of the House, be more willing to provoke a shutdown? Almost certainly, yes.
Furthermore, McCarthy had also allowed Ukraine aid to clear the House floor, despite complaints from Trump and his “America First” acolytes. A new speaker could turn off the spigot.
And in January 2025, the House will ratify the Electoral College vote count. The speaker does not play a direct role, and the recently enacted Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act of 2022 raised the threshold for raising a formal objection to any state’s list of electors; what had been a single member of the House and Senate is now one-fifth of each body. Still, a fervent election denier in a leadership position could encourage such an objection on specious grounds.
Johnson’s record does not inspire confidence. He played an outsized role in Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 results, championing a flimsy legal theory to justify fraudulent slates of electors. The group, Republicans for Ukraine, gave Johnson an ‘F’ grade for voting against Ukraine aid in nearly all instances. He voted against the September bill to keep the government open.
Do we have any reason to hope Johnson won’t plunge our economy and democracy into catastrophe? Not much, but squint and you can find some.
First, Johnson did vote for the Biden-McCarthy debt limit deal, separating himself from 71 nihilistic Republicans willing to default. That suggests he’s not a burn-it-all-down conservative. It will also help Senate Democrats’ negotiating position because they can publicly press Johnson to honor a deal for which he voted.
Second, while the center-right Republicans in the House GOP Conference allowed the far-right to exercise a veto over the speakership, they did flex some muscles along the way. They refused to give the gavel to the confrontational and even more insurrectionist Jim Jordan. Some of the holdouts stated that they were concerned about Jordan’s willingness to keep the government open and avert automatic defense cuts (per the debt limit deal’s fallback provision, which could kick in by the end of the year without passage of individual spending bills.)
After Jordan’s withdrawal, House Republicans voted between seven candidates for Speaker. In the initial ballot, 120 Republicans supported candidates who voted to keep the government open and aid Ukraine, versus 90 who voted for opponents of each. Several rounds of balloting nominated Representative Tom Emmer, who hailed from the former camp. While Emmer quickly bowed out in the face of far-right opposition, his initial victory signaled where the majority of the majority stands. Johnson can’t easily maintain party unity without listening to them.
Third, Johnson sketched out a short-term legislative agenda in a letter to his colleagues, which included a “stopgap measure” to keep the government open “that expires on January 15 or April 15 (based on what can obtain Conference consensus) to ensure the Senate cannot jam the House with a Christmas omnibus.”
The two dates carry significance because of that debt limit deal provision that triggers an across-most-of-the-board one-percent spending cut if individual spending bills (as opposed to a single, sprawling omnibus) are not passed by the end of the year. Both dates go past the deadline, but the automatic cut would be rescinded upon passage of individual spending bills. So, meeting a January 15 deadline would, in effect, avert the cut, whereas an April 15 deadline would force government agencies—including the Pentagon—to limp along for months.
The cagey Johnson did not make a hard pledge to any of the GOP’s factions and so has wiggle room to keep the government open.
Johnson’s letter was silent on Ukraine and Biden’s proposed foreign aid supplemental package that covers Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, and the southern U.S. border. But on CNN Wednesday, Representative Ken Buck said it was his “understanding” that Johnson would allow Ukraine aid legislation to reach the floor. If true, such legislation would likely pass on a bipartisan vote over the objection of the “America First” Republicans, of whom Johnson has been affiliated. (If only Nixon could go to China, maybe only Johnson can fund Ukraine.)
Trading Kevin McCarthy for Mike Johnson is not a trade I would have made. But Democrats effectively asked for a new deck of cards and must now play the cards they have been dealt.
Former Speaker Paul Ryan recently observed to Politico’s Jonathan Martin that Republicans do not really control the House. Instead, “it’s basically a bifurcated coalition government.” The challenge for Democrats and their tacit partners in the GOP, who have helped meet our debt obligations and fund the government, is to keep it that way. Even though Republicans united around a speaker, they have not resolved their internal differences on primary challenges the House must address. Basic governing will still require bipartisanship within the House and between the House and Senate. Either Johnson grasps that, or the federal government will literally stop functioning.