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Mike Johnson

The House GOP’s battle royale

Speaker Mike Johnson’s tenure, just over two weeks old, has brought a fascinating dynamic to the fore for the House Republican Conference — it’s now every member for themselves.

Gone are the days when House Republicans took difficult votes for the greater good of the party or to strengthen the speaker’s hand in a showdown with the Senate. The House is now akin to a battle royale, with every lawmaker acting purely out of self-interest.

It’s true that there was never much Republican loyalty in this Congress to begin with, as former Speaker Kevin McCarthy would acknowledge.

But after 10 months of brutal GOP infighting that culminated in McCarthy’s ouster and in the eventual election of Johnson, a 51-year-old with very limited leadership experience, emotions remain very raw. Members are looking toward the 2024 election, with former President Donald Trump likely at the top of the ticket, and making the choice to vote however they want.

Consider this: The House Republican leadership had to pull two critical spending bills this week. Neither would’ve become law, yet both illustrated the divides in the House Republican Conference and members’ complete unwillingness to bridge them.

Both moderate New York Republicans and hardline conservatives were unmoved by the leadership’s entreaties on the Transportation-HUD spending bill. New York Republicans were peeved that the bill cut too much from Amtrak and public transit, while hardliners thought it didn’t cut enough.

On Thursday, the GOP leadership abruptly pulled the Financial Services-General Government spending bill when both conservatives and moderates revolted. Conservatives didn’t like that the legislation failed to explicitly ban funding for a new FBI headquarters. Moderates opposed the repeal of a provision that prohibited D.C. companies from discriminating against employees who get an abortion.

Johnson and party leaders lobbied their members for two days to back the FSGG measure, only to come up short. In fact, the leadership was bested by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who whipped conservatives against the FSGG bill.

“That’s the proposal and it’s like, ‘No, we’re not doing that,’” Rep. John Duarte (R-Calif.) said of the abortion language. “Let’s get this done once and for all. If you have non-core abortion language to put in these bills, put them into separate amendments.”

“Us pragmatic conservatives — the guys in Biden districts — we felt like we were walked on for nine months,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) noted. He added:

This dynamic is about to become much more important. The federal government will shut down in a week and Johnson has yet to unveil how he plans to fund agencies beyond Nov. 17. Other GOP leaders have been kept in the dark. Rank-and-file Republicans have been frustrated with the lack of information. We’ve been told an announcement is imminent.

One pathway is a so-called “laddered CR,” which would extend government funding in two tranches over the next few months. Senators in both parties, House Democrats and the White House think this is a bad idea. But several sources have indicated this is where Johnson is leaning.

Another option for Johnson is to move a continuing resolution that extends into January and attach Israel aid and the creation of a fiscal committee to the measure.

Yet Johnson has boxed himself in there, too. Since he initially insisted on conditioning aid to Israel on cutting IRS funding, conservatives are demanding that again.

It seems likely that Johnson will first try to move a CR package favored by the House Freedom Caucus. It’s not clear the laddered approach will pass the House. The GOP conference may be forced to return to reality and pass a more pared-down, mainstream bill.

But the HFC has its demands, and they’re making them known.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said the CR needs to be “at or below” the spending levels mandated in the Fiscal Responsibility Act and all extra spending — such as Israel — needs to be matched by equal spending cuts. “Mike was right about that,” Roy said.

Of course, what Roy wants isn’t going to become law. And therein lies the rub. Hardline conservatives have not been content to recognize that their preferred pathway is usually the minority view in the conference. The question is, can the two sides put their self-interest aside for the better of the conference?

Also: Three members of the House are headed for the exits. Reps. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) will all forgo reelection. Wenstrup and Kilmer announced their retirement. And local news outlets in Buffalo reported Higgins would leave Congress this year to run Shea’s Performing Arts Center.

— Jake Sherman, John Bresnahan and Max Cohen

Presented by The Coalition to Project American Jobs

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Editorial photos provided by Getty Images. Political ads courtesy of AdImpact.