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Republicans Elect Mike Johnson Speaker
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Republicans Elect Mike Johnson Speaker

It brings the impasse to an end, but the House GOP still has a lot of hurdles to overcome this year.

U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson shakes hands with Rep. Andy Barr as the House of Representatives holds an election for a new speaker of the House Wednesday. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

If you ask House Republicans about their speakerless October—why Kevin McCarthy was ousted, why the conference had to go through four replacement candidates to find one who didn’t have sworn enemies determined to block him—you’ll get varying answers.

Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota blames “an increasingly polarized political environment that rewards intransigence, stubbornness, and fighting as opposed to finding common ground.”

Rep. Mike Gallagher’s theory is institutional decline. “You have people that feel no loyalty to an institution like Congress because it’s weak,” he told reporters. “We’ve gone from being the most powerful branch of government to the weakest, and they’re not going to abide by the rules of the conference or the norms of congressional behavior.”

Far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, on the other hand, believes the past month of chaos on the House floor was actually because “the GOP conference is changing, and it’s changing to reflect ‘America First.’”

Whatever the reason, it’s clear this slim House Republican majority—even in its most unified and focused moments—is only barely capable of working as one party. Electing Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana to be speaker, as Republicans did with 220 votes on Wednesday, won’t change that. And the conclusion of one chapter in this saga only kicks off another: In the coming weeks, Johnson will have to navigate a fight over government funding, as well as heated debates over additional military aid to Ukraine and Israel.

In remarks on Wednesday, Johnson said he will give rank-and-file members more involvement in the legislative process and pledged that his speakership will be known for “decentralizing the power” in the chamber. Planning an ambitious schedule to avert a government shutdown on November 17, he also said the House will quickly return to pressing matters. “Let the enemies of freedom around the world hear us loud and clear,” Johnson said. “The people’s House is back in business.”

Johnson is well-liked by his colleagues, but he won the gavel on Wednesday largely because lawmakers were exhausted. Following a three-week standstill since McCarthy’s ouster on October 3, multiple Republicans said Tuesday they just wanted to install a new speaker to get the chamber back to work. Four frustrated members The Dispatch talked to, none of whom had supported Johnson for the job until late Tuesday night, indicated they’d vote for whoever the nominee ended up being following Tuesday’s second conference votes. It also helped Johnson’s cause that, in the words of Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, he hadn’t “acquired a single enemy in his time here.”

But he hasn’t acquired much genuine leadership experience, either. First elected to the House in 2016, Johnson hasn’t so much as chaired a full committee. He’s built relationships across the party as vice chair of the GOP conference, and he has sterling conservative credentials from his time as an attorney at Alliance Defending Freedom, the Christian legal advocacy group. But empowered with the speaker’s gavel, Johnson will now be charged with hiring staff to run the chamber’s business, setting the party’s floor agenda, mediating divides within the conference, fundraising almost around the clock, and identifying candidates who could help Republicans keep the majority. It’s a tall order for a relative newcomer to the House.

Johnson will also be tasked with cutting through the animosity this saga has fostered between members. There’s a lot of bad blood among House Republicans, and it won’t instantly disappear with Wednesday’s vote. “Is there a conference magic bullet?” a bedraggled Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart asked between meetings on Tuesday night. “If you find it, let me know.”

“This is not something that has just fallen apart all of a sudden,” he said of the party. “We’ve seen this kind of erosion of sticking together as a team.”

Diaz-Balart also acknowledged Johnson may come into the job relatively weakened, as the whole world knows he wasn’t the conference’s first, second, third, or fourth choice for the role. “I want to be respectful,” he said. “But that’s where we are.”

Now in the spotlight, Johnson—and the most electorally vulnerable Republicans who supported him—will have to answer for his prominent role in attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Johnson didn’t just vote alongside two-thirds of the conference to reject results from two states on January 6, 2021. He also spearheaded the House GOP conference’s amicus brief for a Texas lawsuit that attempted to throw out election results from four key swing states Joe Biden won. 

Moderate Republicans might have taken issue with Johnson’s record if he had been the first speaker candidate up for a vote this month, but they felt a sense of urgency to elect a new speaker this week. 

“I didn’t agree with his votes on the election certification,” Rep. Don Bacon told The Dispatch after Wednesday’s vote, noting that he first supported Rep. Tom Emmer, who didn’t try to reject the 2020 results, for the job on Tuesday. (Emmer stepped down as the party’s nominee Tuesday just hours after being selected, having learned that he—like Reps. Steve Scalise and Jim Jordan—didn’t have enough support to win on the House floor.)

But, Bacon said, “I accept the decision of the majority of the majority in our conference, and we need to open the House.” He added he believes Johnson “is a man of strong character,” and “he treats everyone with tremendous decency.”

Rep. Ken Buck, who explicitly tied his vote against Jordan last week to his refusal to clearly state who won the 2020 election, also voted for Johnson, citing his “unwavering dedication to conservative principles.”

And Rep. John Duarte, a California Republican who told The Dispatch he doesn’t believe the 2020 election was stolen, said he didn’t want to make demands based on voting records. “If we start holding everybody accountable to our own sentiments and what happened in the past, we’ll never be able to move forward,” Duarte, a freshman, said Tuesday when asked about Johnson’s role in trying to keep Trump in power.

Despite this month’s dysfunction, Duarte is still optimistic about making a difference with the House Republican majority.

“We are blessed with a constitutional democracy, and the fact that we can work through our absurdities in this way—peacefully, in conference, again and again—is still better than not having a constitutional democracy,” he said. “As inefficient and as many missed opportunities as there seem to be, we’re still blessed to have what we have.”

Republican Women on Staying Out of It

Over the course of three weeks and more speakership candidates than anyone can be expected remember, not one Republican woman ran for the job. 

Why? “We’re wiser,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers told The Dispatch in the twilight zone between speakership candidates on Tuesday .

Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar of Florida had a similar response. “Maybe women are a little more intelligent and respect themselves better,” she said.

Rep. Claudia Tenney, meanwhile, said “nobody wants it.” And Rep. Virginia Foxx emphasized her focus on chairing the Education and Workforce Committee: “I’ve got a very important job to do there to bring in some reforms with education, and if I’m not there, I’m afraid they won’t get done.”

Key Hearings

  • A House Financial Services subcommittee will meet Thursday morning to examine the Iranian regime’s access to funds and how they finance terrorism. Information and livestream here.
  • The Senate banking panel will also hold a hearing Thursday morning on illicit finance and terrorism. Information and livestream here.
  • Senators on the Special Committee on Aging will hear testimony from experts Thursday morning on therapies to combat rare, progressive, and serious diseases. Information and livestream here.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.