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Mike Johnson

Inside the closed House Republican leadership retreat in Miami

The House Republican leadership has been holed up at the luxury waterside Mandarin Oriental in Miami for its annual Elected Leadership Committee retreat. This session followed an NRCC donor event at the Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne, Fla., over the weekend.

The ELC, as it’s known in the Capitol, is designed to be the kitchen cabinet for the top House Republican — in this case Speaker Mike Johnson — and the leadership. This year, Johnson invited committee chairs and representatives from different factions within the GOP conference to attend as well.

We spent the day reporting on the closed-door retreat Tuesday. And a few moments stuck out to us.

1) Government spending. Congress is facing two funding deadlines during the next 16 days — March 1 and March 8. Johnson demanded the twin spending cliffs as a way to ensure that House hardline conservatives weren’t forced to swallow a massive omnibus bill.

At this point, the House and Senate haven’t passed any FY2024 spending bills, although appropriators in both chambers are scrambling to come up with multiple packages before the deadlines.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the chair of the House Rules Committee and a leading contender to become the next Appropriations Committee chair, said during the retreat that he expects leadership to back any negotiated spending deal and that appropriators alone can’t be relied upon to drag the bill across the finish line.

As we’ve reported, the House Freedom Caucus is pressing Johnson and GOP appropriators not to give in to Democrats and the Senate over policy riders on the spending bills. They want Johnson to risk a shutdown if necessary.

Johnson didn’t weigh in either way on this topic in Miami. But it does get to an issue facing House Republicans — what will Johnson do on government funding? Johnson effectively has three options: a short-term funding bill, which Johnson has been skeptical of; a yearlong CR that would cut spending by 1% beginning April 1; or the bipartisan compromise package, which is expected to emerge in the coming days.

The Four Corners — the top House and Senate appropriators in both parties — are still trying to get a deal on FY24 spending. The question to think about now is how will Johnson move a spending deal? Will he move it in two packages? Three packages? Johnson needs something that will carry votes and only has a limited number of legislative vehicles that will attract support.

2) Johnson’s leadership. On several occasions during the retreat, lawmakers told Johnson that they’re hoping he becomes a more vocal leader. Johnson’s style is hard to pin down. He’s not very eager to take specific positions and push the conference to follow him. For example, after the Senate passed a $95 billion foreign aid funding bill, Johnson said it wasn’t a priority for him given the looming government funding deadlines.

At the ELC retreat, Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), the chair of the House Freedom Caucus, said Johnson should be more of a leader and not a neutral referee.

Ways and Means Committee Chair Jason Smith (R-Mo.) wondered aloud why Johnson was spending so much time at the retreat talking about Ukraine aid when there’s a government shutdown just days away.

This gets back to an adage we hear a lot in the House Republican Conference — despite how often people pine for member-driven leadership, Republicans truly want to be led. Then they can complain about what direction they’re being led in.

3) Ukraine. Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.) and House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) had a heated back-and-forth over the future of aid to Ukraine. Hill, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, is in favor of additional U.S. funding for Ukraine. At the retreat, Hill said Congress has to help the Ukrainians defeat Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, which is about to enter its third year.

Jordan is a prominent Ukraine skeptic. Jordan — echoing the position of many GOP conservatives — asked what the desired outcome was in continuing to pour billions of dollars into the conflict. Hill countered that Putin can’t continue his land-grabbing campaign without a U.S. response. This clash represents the two poles in the House Republican Conference when it comes to sending more money to Kyiv.

4) Good dumps on McCarthy. In a moment that surprised many at the retreat, Good told the room that the country was better off without Kevin McCarthy as speaker. Good said he’d vote to remove him from the post again. Of course, the House has had quite a lot of drama since GOP hardliners — backed by Democrats — voted to oust McCarthy from the speakership. But Good has publicly and privately shown no remorse.

General takeaway: To a person, nearly every attendee we spoke to — and we spoke to a lot of them — said that Johnson didn’t present a vision, but rather lectured his colleagues. One source compared his performance to a political science professor.

— Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan

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