Speaker Mike Johnson’s decision to avoid a government shutdown by relying on Democratic votes will not cost him the gavel, despite it being the exact same strategy that got Kevin McCarthy the boot, according to interviews with over a dozen members from across the House Republican Conference.
But while the Louisiana Republican has largely avoided a right-wing rebellion, his move has still triggered serious grumbling from conservatives, delivering an early warning sign for the new speaker as he tries to unite his bitterly divided conference behind him in the crucial months ahead.
At this point, conservative hardliners – including the eight who voted to remove McCarthy – say there’s no desire to punish Johnson over his stopgap funding plan and told CNN there haven’t been any private conversations about making a “motion to vacate” the speaker’s chair, which is the tool that was used to oust McCarthy.
The reason they’re willing to give Johnson a pass: They say he has only been on the job for three weeks, whereas McCarthy had nine months to figure out a government funding plan before he ultimately put a clean stopgap bill on the floor with the support of Democrats. Conservatives also say Johnson, who was a rank-and-file member up until this point, hasn’t broken their trust yet.
“It’s like throwing in a quarterback in the fourth quarter and expecting him to make up for three quarters of failure and you’re behind 35-0,” said Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, one of the eight Republicans who voted out McCarthy and voted against Johnson’s government funding bill.
But there’s also zero appetite among Republicans to plunge the House into chaos again, with the tumultuous, three-week speaker’s battle fresh on members’ minds and emotions still running high inside the GOP conference.
“I think when you touch a hot stove once, you don’t do it twice,” veteran GOP Rules Chairman Tom Cole of Oklahoma told CNN. “I think it would be very hard to justify doing this again. I think most of the people that might be inclined to do it know that they have the most conservative speaker that we’ve ever had and are likely to have.”
Yet even as they signal they’re willing to give Johnson a longer leash to govern, some hardliners are warning that the relationship with Johnson has suffered a setback, which could complicate their ability to work together in the near future – including on the remainder of their long-term spending bills and a supplemental aid package for Ukraine, Israel and the southern border.
“It’s a bad decision. So, of course, it damages your relationship when people make bad decisions,” Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio, a member of the Freedom Caucus who backed McCarthy, told CNN. “It gives you less confidence that the next play call is going to be the right one. There’s a lot of people pretty upset, that’s for sure.”
And some Republicans are now warning Johnson that he may not be able to rely on their votes in the future, demonstrating the precarious tightrope Johnson is walking as he adjusts to his new job and figures out how to govern over a razor-thin majority – a feat that proved nearly impossible for his predecessor.
“I gotta tell you, you can’t assume my vote on any bill, if the speaker is going to roll us,” Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, a Freedom Caucus member, said on Fox Business. “And all I know is that they’re negotiating border provisions next week on Ukraine. This better not be the model of the approach or there will be, you know, trouble in so-called Paradise.”
Others, however, are showing Johnson a little more grace – which has fueled allegations of hypocrisy from McCarthy’s allies. Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina, another one of the eight Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy, said that while Johnson’s goodwill is not “unlimited,” he also believes that “for the time being, I think his credibility is impressive.”
For his part, Johnson defended his approach to avert a government shutdown and insisted his handling of the situation differs from McCarthy, arguing his speakership is no less secure despite the move. But Johnson also vowed that this would be the last stopgap spending bill he puts forward – a promise that may prove hard to keep, but one that could cool the anger from his right flank, at least in the short-term.
“Kevin was in a very difficult situation when that happened,” Johnson told CNN. “This is a different situation, the innovation that we created, this new vehicle that the Democrats initially said was so frightening, actually turns out to be something that will change the way we do this.”
Johnson confronts complaints from right wing
In his most consequential decision yet, Johnson opted to avert a shutdown by simply extending government funding at current levels until early next year – forgoing the deep spending cuts sought by hardline conservatives. Johnson did, however, give the right one minor concession by structuring government funding under a two-tier plan, which was the idea favored by conservatives.
But it wasn’t enough to win them over; the House Freedom Caucus took an official position against the plan. And to circumvent the GOP opposition, Johnson made another risky decision by skipping the procedural vote altogether and bringing the bill directly to the floor under an expedited process that requires two-thirds majority for passage, meaning hefty Democratic support.
“Speaker Johnson must reassert his authority in this fight,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican, said ahead of the vote.
To smooth things over with his right flank, Johnson met with the Freedom Caucus Monday night where he explained his thinking and told members he had limited options or time to avoid a shutdown, according to lawmakers in attendance. He made a similar argument in a conference-wide meeting on Tuesday morning, and tried to frame the measure as a win since it avoids them getting jammed ahead of a Christmastime-deadline.
But some Freedom Caucus members were still upset and expressed their frustrations, especially since they had presented him with other options in private meetings that they thought had a real chance of passing.
“He came over and took the arrows personally,” one member said of the Monday meeting.
During the conference-wide conference meeting on Tuesday, multiple members stood up and complained about the short-term spending bill – but stopped short of attacking Johnson directly over it, another sign of how they’re giving him more breathing room.
“He’s been given a soup sandwich,” said GOP Rep. Troy Nehls of Texas. “You got to give the guy a little bit of time to figure this out.”
McCarthy allies cry foul
The lack of desire to punish Johnson has only further affirmed a belief among McCarthy allies that the real reason the California Republican was ousted had nothing to do with his plan to work with Democrats to keep the government open passed September 30.
“Let’s be clear, Kevin McCarthy was not thrown out because of the stopgap funding measure, that was the excuse people used,” GOP Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota told CNN. “There were people fixing for a fight.”
GOP Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana said “personal animus toward McCarthy” was a main driver in his ousting.
There are also those who have pointed out that Johnson as speaker is pushing the exact type of government funding plan that he voted against when it was presented by McCarthy in September.
Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, who served as interim speaker following McCarthy’s ouster, said, “Hypocrisy in Washington is nothing new.”
And Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who opposed ousting McCarthy, criticized her colleagues for taking different approaches.
“I think if you’re going to oust a speaker of the House from your conference, the red line should remain the same for the next speaker,” Greene said. “What’s the point in throwing out one speaker if nothing changes? And the only way to make sure that real changes happen is make the red line stay the same for every speaker after that. And I don’t think we’re going to see that.”