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Leader Look: Jeffries, McConnell, Schumer and Johnson

Leader Look for Summer 2024: The heat is on

Welcome to the Memorial Day recess. With official Washington heading out of town — or to the 80th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy — we wanted to engage in a semi-frequent Punchbowl News tradition: our Leader Look. If you want to read about a social-media outburst by a backbencher, this isn’t it. We’re going to zoom in on the power dynamics that really matter.

Mike Johnson: Tomorrow is the seven-month anniversary of Johnson’s rise to speakership, and it’s been quite the ride. Johnson has weathered nearly every storm imaginable during the last few months. He helped pass a massive foreign aid bill — including $60 billion for Ukraine — and made it through a motion to vacate, albeit with Democratic help.

Johnson isn’t Sam Rayburn nor Nancy Pelosi, and no one is claiming he is. Being speaker isn’t an easy job to learn on the fly, but Johnson hasn’t had any major stumbles in recent weeks. Sure, Johnson went to stand behind Donald Trump at court in New York, a move that many in the GOP privately sneered at. Johnson also claimed to know “intuitively” that “a lot of illegals” are voting in federal elections. There’s no evidence for that claim, but it’s standard fare in Trump’s GOP.

Johnson has copied former Speaker Kevin McCarthy in that he’s tacked back to the right now after veering left. House Republicans have started work on the FY2025 spending bills and the farm bill, although these won’t be finished until after Election Day. That’s a huge advantage for Johnson; he can keep tacking to the right through Nov. 5.

Johnson also has put Democrats in a number of tough positions on Israel. To the delight of many Republicans, he led the charge on bringing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington to address a joint meeting of Congress. Johnson made the announcement that Netanyahu was indeed coming to Capitol Hill at an Israeli embassy event Thursday evening.

Chuck Schumer: The summer before an election is usually a slow time in the Senate. But Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has a lot on his mind with Democrats’ control of the Senate in doubt next year.

Schumer has vowed to find a path for several different pieces of bipartisan legislation that the Senate has been unable to pass. Think railway safety, cannabis banking, kids’ online safety, the Affordable Connectivity Program, bank executive clawbacks, prescription drugs, AI regulations and so much more.

It’s not clear whether any of these can actually pass or whether Schumer will force “show” votes on any of them to put pressure on Republicans or otherwise help boost his most endangered members.

Schumer’s focus this summer will be doing everything he can to protect his most vulnerable incumbents. It’s still early, but most of them are running ahead of their GOP challengers — both in fundraising and the polls.

Johnson has put a lot of public pressure on Schumer to sign onto his invitation for Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress. Schumer has said he’d join that invitation — and presumably he has with Johnson’s announcement Thursday evening — but several Democrats don’t think he should. This has become a contentious issue within the Senate Democratic Caucus. And when Netanyahu comes, Schumer will have to handle the situation gingerly.

Hakeem Jeffries: By all rights, House Democrats should be on the way to the majority in the fall. But the last two cycles have led to unpredictable outcomes for both parties, and the number of competitive House seats really in play is small. So it’ll be a no-holds-barred brawl until the end. House Democrats are way ahead on money, although President Joe Biden’s weakness in the polls is a problem.

Jeffries took a risk by urging Democrats to support Johnson in the face of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) effort to oust the speaker. Jeffries won’t say what Democrats will do if Greene goes the MTV route again.

And we can’t talk about Jeffries without mentioning his caucus’ divide on Israel. He’s had to manage a caucus that’s deeply split on the ongoing war in Gaza. Jeffries has handled this issue deftly given the crosscurrents in the party.

Mitch McConnell: The Senate minority leader is dismissed as a “lame duck” GOP leader by conservative detractors, but Mitch McConnell and his massive political operation will play a big role in the party’s effort to win the Senate majority this fall.

Republicans have a very favorable Senate map and a stronger slate of candidates than in recent years. This is in part because the NRSC under Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) decided to endorse candidates in GOP primaries. That’s a departure from the previous cycle which netted Trump-friendly candidates who couldn’t win a general election.

Senate Republicans also benefit from it being a presidential election year. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s (W.Va.) retirement all but guarantees a GOP pickup in West Virginia, while Trump will help Republican challengers in Montana and Ohio.

After defeating the Trump-aligned wing on Ukraine aid this spring, McConnell is pedal-to-the-metal on his push to preserve Republicans’ traditional foreign policy doctrine. Just last week, McConnell called out conservatives for cozying up to Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán.

— Jake Sherman, Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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