Did Mike Johnson Just Doom Himself to the Same Fate as Kevin McCarthy?

Did Mike Johnson Just Doom Himself to the Same Fate as Kevin McCarthy?

On Tuesday, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson cleared his first major hurdle as the chamber’s new leader: passing a temporary spending bill to avert a shutdown and keep the government funded through the beginning of next year.

The so-called laddered continuing resolution — which passed the House with bipartisan support Tuesday and is likely to pass the Senate later this week — delivered Johnson a much-needed legislative win, averting a politically costly shutdown and buying Republicans a few more months to hammer out full-year spending bills. Under the “laddered” plan, roughly half the government is funded through Jan. 19 and the other half is funded through Feb. 2.

But according to Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute and a former analyst at the Congressional Research Service, that news wasn’t unequivocally good for Johnson. As Glassman told me, a closer look at the procedure that Johnson relied on to pass the continuing resolution (CR) — which relied to a significant extent on Democratic support — reveals that the new speaker’s control of the Republican conference is more fragile that it may seem.

“At the procedural level, what we’re learning is that the settlement to get Johnson in the speakership — which did get all 221 Republican votes in the House — was not a settlement of the [House GOP’s] procedural coalition,” said Glassman, who studies legislative process and politics. “That’s a big distinction.”

The tenuousness of Johnson’s control over his conference is evident not only in what the latest package does and doesn’t contain — for instance, no conservative priorities like spending cuts or policy riders — but also in how it was passed. Under normal circumstances, Glassman explained, the majority party would pass a legislative “rule” before putting a spending bill up for a vote on the floor — a move that would have leaned on his fellow members of the Republican caucus.

Instead, Johnson failed to win over enough of his more hardline conservative colleagues to pass a rule, and he was forced to move the bill “under suspension,” a maneuver that required the package to win the support of a significant number of Democrats. In the end, Glassman said, Johnson found himself making the same trade-off that got his predecessor, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, booted from the job: swapping conservative votes for Democratic support to keep the government open.

Unlike McCarthy’s, Glassman said, Johnson’s gamble will almost certainly pay off for the time being, thanks to some combination of Republican goodwill and bipartisan fatigue. But the episode spells trouble for Johnson down the road.

“If you don’t have a procedural majority — meaning a working majority in the House, day in and day out — you don’t really have control over the agenda,” said Glassman. “That really is a weakened leadership in some broader sense.”

The following has been edited for clarity and concision.

Ian Ward: Is this continuing resolution a real victory for Johnson? Or in the long run, does it hurt him more than it helps him?

Matt Glassman: I think it’s a victory for Johnson in the sense that he did the same thing that McCarthy was trying to do on Sept. 30, except he’s not gonna lose his job. So at that minimum level of what you’re trying to achieve as a speaker — which is pass appropriations bills and not get axed by a resolution to vacate the chair — then yes, I think it’s a victory. He has somehow calmed down the right wing of the conference such that they’re willing to kick and scream — and maybe not vote for things — but they aren’t so mad at him that they’re going to try and yank him out of the speakership.

Is it a victory for the Republican budget appropriations ideology? I don’t think so. This is an ongoing problem of the last 15 years, but when you need Democratic votes, you’ve got to move the bill to the left — and that’s what you’re seeing here. You don’t see any spending cuts, you don’t see any policy riders, you just see a clean CR — which means a clean CR at fiscal year 2023 levels, and the 2023 levels were written by Democratic majorities. Obviously, the Republicans have input in the Senate, and they’re not left-wing bills, but they aren’t the bills that House Republicans would write if they could get their act together in any sort of any sort of collective way and come up with 217 Republican votes.

Ward: What have we learned from this episode about Johnson’s power over the Republican conference? Is he proceeding with a strong hand?

Glassman: I don’t think so. Essentially, I think this is sort of a honeymoon/exhaustion/“We’ll look ridiculous if we make moves against him right now” situation. Johnson is trying to get something across, and he’s been given the room to do that by people who dissent from it.

At the procedural level, what we’re learning is that the settlement to get Johnson in the speakership — which did get all 221 Republican votes in the House — was not a settlement of the [House GOP’s] procedural coalition. That’s a big distinction. Getting the votes for the speakership is a one-time thing, and obviously, Johnson got them, and that was good enough to get him the speakership. But if you don’t have a procedural majority — meaning a working majority in the House, day in and day out — you don’t really have control over the agenda. Given that there’s a sizable number of Freedom Caucus members who are still refusing to adopt the rules that the leadership wants to put on the floor, that really is a weakened leadership in some broader sense. If the leadership doesn’t have the deference from their conference to set the agenda, they don’t really have control of the House.

Ward: Is there a path for Johnson to win that procedural majority? Or is he facing the same headwinds that McCarthy did?

Glassman: I think he’s facing roughly the same headwinds as McCarthy. To Johnson’s credit, he has been able to put a bill on the floor that allows House Republicans to have control. It looks like the Senate is going to accept this bill, and I think that’s a win for him, relative to not being able to do anything and then just having to eat whatever the Senate sends over. Getting jammed by the Senate probably would have been the worst outcome for him.

Could a more capable and more powerful speaker navigate this conference? Could John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi do it? Maybe — but I’m not sure. This must be a situation where there’s just too narrow a majority and the factions are too divided, and the speaker just isn’t going to get them to agree on something. When you have a majority that only allows you to lose three votes, you’re really up a creek.

Ward: What sort of advantages does Johnson enjoy over McCarthy? Why isn’t he meeting the same fate as McCarthy?

Glassman: I think there’s quite a bit of difference between Johnson and McCarthy. The far right sees Johnson as one of them in the way he talks about politics and the way he thinks about politics. So anytime he makes a compromise — even if it’s the same compromise that McCarthy made — they’re not concerned about where he’s coming from.

The second thing is that Johnson doesn’t have any personal animosities in the way McCarthy did. The McCarthy-Gaetz situation had really become a poisonous thing and, absent that, I’m not sure the resolution to vacate would have been brought. And right now, Johnson doesn’t have those personal animosities. The far right likes him, and so they can see this as “He’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.”

Ward: What did you think of his decision to use the laddered CR in the first place? Was that a savvy move?

Glassman: It was savvy in one sense, in that this was an idea that came from the right. But for the life of me, I’m not seeing how the laddered CR changes a lot about the politics — in fact, it may complicate them. But because it’s an idea from the right, it at least came with some buy-in from conservatives, and it seems to have at least reassured conservatives that Johnson’s doing something they want.

Ward: How does a laddered CR complicate the politics?

Glassman: It sets up some interesting politics, [because] there’s a lot of ways you can set the ladder. When it was originally proposed, I was picturing 12 different rungs, and all the bills would expire at different times. But the ordering of the bills makes a difference. You can imagine some politics right now, where the people who really care about the bills that are coming up first aren’t going to want the government shutdown on Jan. 19 [the date when the first spending bills expire], while the people who mostly care about defense spending [in the second set of bills] might be a little less concerned about the government shutting down — so that probably tilts the negotiations in their direction at some marginal level.

Ward: Do you think we’ll see more laddered CRs like this one used in the future?

Glassman: I think that the test of whether people are going to pick up this laddered idea — and I don’t think they will — is whether it creates a politics at the end of January and beginning of February that some people see as having been advantageous to them. The way to think about it is: What’s the consequence of it? If the first bill doesn’t pass and you get a shutdown, then what you end up with is a partial shutdown situation, and we’ve had those plenty of times. So the question is whether there are people who are OK with a partial shutdown relative to a full shutdown — and think the answer is obviously yes.

Ward: The consequence of the Freedom Caucus’ ongoing opposition to any compromise on these spending packages seems to be more Republican cooperation with Democrats, and ultimately more Democratic priorities in the spending packages that do pass. Do you think conservatives have a long game here? What’s their rationale for staying the course that they’re on now?

Glassman: I think the key to understanding this is that the Freedom Caucus is in some sense concerned with policy — but they’re also concerned with other things. They have other goals, and one of their goals is to separate themselves from Republican leadership and to show themselves to be the “true conservatives.”

One way to do that is to stake out a position that’s more conservative than leadership’s, and then not to compromise on that. The result is either that the leadership team does what they want — which would then achieve the policy, but that’s generally impossible — or instead, leadership can work with the Democrats, at which point they betray the Freedom Caucus, who can then say, “See, you’re just fake conservatives.

If you define that as a win — being able to play up this betrayal narrative — then you’re always going to win: You’re either going to get your policy, or you’re going to get your betrayal narrative. I think for a lot of the Freedom Caucus, they’re just as happy with either one.

Ward: What do you think Johnson needs to do between now and January to ensure that he’s not facing the exact same situation in a couple of months?

Glassman: I think his core goal is to try and get all 12 appropriations bills across the line between now and then — but that’s a big list. A lot of the individual bills are stuck in the same loggerhead as the CR. But if he can get all 12 bills across the line, then he can credibly commit to a strategy where he doesn’t want to do an omnibus negotiation with the Senate — where he can go bill by bill.

Beyond that, he needs to demonstrate that he can get those 12 bills across the line — or at least some of them across the line — by bringing his conference together. It doesn’t do him any good to get bills across by negotiating with the Democrats. But if he can find a way to get all 12 bills across the line with a conservative coalition of just Republicans, that would give him a much stronger bargaining position in any negotiations with the Senate.

If he can’t get the bills out of the House, he just set himself up either to rely on Democratic votes in the House or get jammed by the Senate sometime later in the winter.

Ward: And then he ends up facing a situation that looks a lot like McCarthy 2.0?

Glassman: Yeah. Right now, he’s at least got the so-called two-letters plan, where the new person in charge gets two letters from his predecessor. The first letter says, “When you run into trouble, blame me” — and you can see that right now, with Johnson saying things like “I didn’t do this, this wasn’t of my making. But then the second letter says, “If you get in trouble, write two letters.” 

So you get one pass where you can blame the person before you — and that’s going to work well for Johnson for a while. But eventually, it’s not McCarthy’s mess anymore. I don’t know if that’s later this winter or next spring or next year with the fiscal year 2025 bills, but at some point, it’s going to be Johnson’s mess to deal with.

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