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Mike Johnson

Johnson glides but rough patch ahead

On Capitol Hill, members of Congress and their staff are judged in the moment. Every day, senior party leaders are making decisions on tactics and strategy that have major implications for all their colleagues.

By this measure, Speaker Mike Johnson is having a relatively good start to the second week of his speakership.

What’s more, it came as Republicans were openly attacking each other on the floor of both the House and Senate. A group of New York Republicans tried and failed to expel indicted fellow New York GOP Rep. George Santos (although they gave themselves some political cover). And Senate Republicans angrily went after Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) for hours over his military promotions embargo.

Overall, not a great look for the GOP. Johnson did OK, though.

After doubting all Wednesday whether they’d be able to pass the Legislative Branch spending bill, the House cleared the bill easily with four Democrats voting yes. Sure, this wasn’t Johnson but rather the whip team and, to a lesser extent, the majority leader’s team that got it done. Yet Johnson’s leadership crew rolled the dice on a partisan spending bill and got a win.

The Santos’ vote was also a win of sorts for Johnson, although not one he’d brag about. Johnson’s leadership team worked hard to stop Santos’ expulsion for the moment — and their efforts succeeded. The House Ethics Committee says it will release an update on its Santos probe in the next two weeks. This could lead to the freshman lawmaker’s expulsion.

Although Johnson’s $14 billion Israel aid bill adds to the deficit, faces oblivion in the Senate and resembles a Republican Study Committee work product rather than a leadership-driven bill, conservatives are largely backing him up in his first big legislative showdown. The proposal slashes $14 billion from the IRS to offset its cost, which is why the Democratic-run Senate will reject it and President Joe Biden has vowed to veto it if the measure ever reaches his desk.

We never thought House Republicans would make their support for Israel conditional on anything, let alone cutting IRS funding. Still, Johnson’s standard here is worth noting because it could inform further debates.

Senate Republicans including Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Rick Scott (Fla.) hosted Johnson at a largely laudatory GOP lunch Wednesday. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who thinks Johnson’s plan to leave Ukraine funding out of the bill is wrong, sat quietly during the meeting.

Johnson had a good conversation with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries Wednesday too. Now, this should be unremarkable. Grown adults who have differences of opinion should be able to meet without much fuss.

But when it looked like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) may become speaker, Jeffries’ team was clear that they wouldn’t be able to work with him. Both leaders emerged from the session Wednesday saying the right things.

And finally, Johnson hosted Fox News’ Sean Hannity for a session in the Capitol Wednesday night with other GOP lawmakers. This is the second lengthy sitdown the new speaker has done with Hannity already, which shows you exactly who Johnson is trying to play toward since taking over for Kevin McCarthy.

But let’s jump back to Planet Earth for a moment. Johnson still has some potentially very rough days and weeks ahead.

The House GOP leadership has told us they may have to push back consideration of the $14 billion Israel aid package because of expected attendance issues today. Several lawmakers are flying to Texas for former President Donald Trump’s rally in Houston.

Two appropriations bills up this week are also proving to be tough lifts. The New York GOP delegation has raised concerns about the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill due to steep spending cuts — and the leadership is skeptical they have the votes to pass it. The Interior spending bill is running into stiff resistance too.

Johnson’s biggest jam in the medium and long term is Ukraine funding. Johnson told Republican senators he can’t move a combined Ukraine-Israel aid bill. The speaker repeated that stance to Hannity on Wednesday night.

But that’s exactly what McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer want. And President Joe Biden too. So what will Johnson do if that gets dropped into his lap?

Johnson has softened his position on Ukraine overall. After voting against assistance for Kyiv in September, Johnson is now privately telling people he is in favor of sending more cash to the Ukrainians. This will land him in hot water with House conservatives.

And in 16 short days, the government will run out of money. Johnson is pitching a stopgap until the middle of January. It’s far from clear to us that the Senate will go for that.

Some news on the staffing front: Johnson is bringing back Josh Hodges as his national security adviser. Hodges worked for Johnson in 2017-18 before decamping for the Trump administration. Hodges worked at the Energy Department, USAID and served two stints on the National Security Council, where he eventually became the senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan

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