Since Kevin McCarthy took the gavel in January, the deeply divided House Republicans have been in a state of cognitive dissonance.
Republican leadership assured members that they would only fund the government through conservative spending bills and that a Democratic Senate and President Joe Biden would bend to Republicans’ will – otherwise Republicans would use a government shutdown to bend them to their will.
Republican leadership said the party would pass more Ukraine aid, an idea supported by Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, while conservative voters — and the House Democrats who represent them — vehemently rejected the idea of another penny for Ukraine.
McCarthy said he could overcome those problems and remain in power, even though he relinquished power through changes to House rules that would allow only one member to force a vote to remove the speaker.
And now Republican leaders are telling their members that if they just keep trying, they’ll just keep nominating — just as McCarthy might be Poisoning the well against anyone but yourself— The House GOP will break through the speaker logjam and elect its new leader.
Miraculously, they may have done this out of sheer exhaustion.
Late Tuesday night, Republicans nominated Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) as their fourth speaker candidate. The election came less than 10 hours after Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN) was nominated as the third speaker, and less than six hours after Emmer was forced to resign.
But Republicans are holding out hope that Johnson — a baritone conservative who traveled in Freedom Caucus circles before becoming chairman of the Republican Study Committee — will succeed where all others have failed. And the early signs suggested that Johnson is ready to do just that.
Normally, Johnson’s chances of securing the vote would be slim at best. While Johnson received 128 votes from the 224-member GOP conference on Tuesday evening, 43 Republicans voted for McCarthy and another 29 for conservative Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) in the final vote.
On Tuesday evening, McCarthy and his allies began The idea of McCarthy getting the speakership back comes into playwhile Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) — the party’s second speaker who failed after the first candidate, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), realized he didn’t have the votes — hired an “assistant.” would “speaker” role.
But Republicans appear unwilling to rethink leadership. Instead, they appear ready to hand Johnson the role of speaker and let him figure out how to resolve all the problems and disappointments that have plagued McCarthy – in addition to dealing with a party that has been struggling over the past three weeks and was shattered.
Essentially, Republicans are accepting cognitive dissonance for a while longer.
When Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) was asked if he knew what Johnson stood for on Ukraine aid or preventing a government shutdown – issues that Bacon is passionate about and that may have led him to support Jordan’s candidacy for speaker Bacon stated that he could apply different standards to Johnson.
“Of course I am against closures and want to support aid to Ukraine,” Bacon said. But he added that he believes in the premise that “you stand behind the majority.”
“To his advantage, he doesn’t have a lot of baggage,” Bacon, one of the more moderate Republicans in the conference, said of Johnson. “He is a nice, decent person. He is a man of convictions, but he treats people very respectfully.”
One of the conference’s far-right members, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) – the original instigator who pushed out McCarthy – was also almost thrilled with the choice.
“I have sat alongside Mike Johnson on the House Judiciary Committee for seven years. I see how considerate he is and how competent he is as an attorney,” Gaetz said. “As chairman of the Republican Study Committee, he made a real push for tax reform and put pressure on spending.”
Gaetz continued: “Mike Johnson’s campaign plan for Speaker of the House really aligns with my view that we should have single-issue spending bills. He got on the microphone and promised us that we would postpone our budget bills, and that gives us a lot of hope.”
And even the most ferocious Republicans, those who just seem to enjoy the attention that stalling legislative business brings, appear to be supporting Johnson.
Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) told reporters Tuesday night that she is “100 percent” behind Johnson.
“He is an honest man, an honest man, a trustworthy man and will be a great leader of the conference,” she said.
Johnson is working at breakneck speed to cement his reputation as a public speaker. He appears to have enough support to push through his bid without answering any of the questions posed to the Republican speaker candidates before him. (At a brief press conference after winning the nomination late Tuesday night, Johnson said he would only answer a few questions “because we’re all pretty tired.”)
When a the reporter asked Johnson if he stayed true to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election – Johnson not only voted against certifying the Electoral College just hours after a bloody insurrection on January 6, 2021, but he also voted for it the lead author of an amicus brief for a lawsuit in Texas to overturn the election – he stopped answering.
“Next question,” he said, as Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) told the reporter, “Shut up!”
Pressed on funding for Ukraine – one of the issues that helped derail McCarthy’s term as speaker – Johnson struck again.
“We’re not doing politics tonight,” Johnson said, as members flanking him booed the question and, in Foxx’s case, told the reporter, “Go away!”
Just last week, Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) insisted he would not vote for Jordan because the Judiciary chairman would not recognize that Trump lost the 2020 election fair and square. There is nothing to suggest that Johnson would make this admission or express regret over his intense efforts to overrule voters.
But Buck appears on board. he told CNN He said late Tuesday that Johnson was likely to win the speakership on Wednesday and gave no indication that he himself was against it.
The key to Johnson’s success? Republicans are just tired.
GOP members emerging late Tuesday from their second closed-door election of the day stressed how grueling the process had been.
Asked what sets Johnson apart from McCarthy, Emmer and Jordan, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) said it’s “possible that there’s just some fatigue setting in.”
“Or, I guess, the realization that this can’t go on forever,” he continued.
In fact, Republicans finally seem to be admitting that they need to find a way out of the cycle of failed speaker candidates.
After Johnson was elected speaker, Republicans held a roll call vote to determine who could oppose Johnson on the floor. While 19 Republicans were absent from the vote, only three members said they were unwilling to support Johnson on Wednesday.
One of those holdouts, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), has been vocal about his lack of belief that Johnson can get the votes.
“He’s in the unique position of being down 30 votes on both sides of the conference,” Massie said before Tuesday night’s election.
But that looks more like a prediction than an accurate prediction – at least at this moment.
Johnson plans to go to the House of Representatives at noon on Wednesday, before Republican opposition can really form against him. And barring a sudden change of heart, Johnson appears to be the unlikely Republican who could lift the House GOP from the ranks of failed speaker candidates.
Ironically, McCarthy’s last-minute attempt to potentially re-establish himself as speaker — with Jordan also given a new leadership position — may actually have provided the impetus for some of the GOP’s most contentious members to join in.
Mace told reporters Tuesday night that she firmly believes McCarthy was behind the effort to get Republicans to put his name in the final round of voting.
“It was definitely organized,” Mace said. “There’s no way it wasn’t.”
She went on to say that McCarthy experienced a “meltdown” because his hand-picked successors all failed and the conference ended up choosing someone outside his sphere of influence.
“I mean, come on,” Mace said.
The combination of exhaustion and anger finally seems to be enough to get someone over the finish line.
The problem for Johnson, however, is that he did not anticipate any of the underlying problems that undid McCarthy. He promises to pass budget bills one piece at a time, and he continues the charade that the Democratic Senate and the Democratic President will cave under little pressure from Republicans in the House.
While Scalise, Emmer and Jordan fretted over how they would approach emergency funding decisions to prevent a shutdown or how they would approach aid to Ukraine and Israel, members were unclear on how Johnson would address these questions privately – or whether he addressed them at all.
To some on the right, any leadership member who came close to participating in McCarthy’s overtures to extend the debt limit or his push to push through stopgap legislation to prevent a shutdown in September was suspect. That included Scalise and Emmer, the conference’s No. 2 and No. 3 prospects under McCarthy. (Johnson voted for the debt limit increase but against the September emergency funding bill.)
But when pressed at a private candidate forum, even Jordan admitted he would need to pass another continuing resolution to avoid a looming shutdown on Nov. 17.
The irony that Jordan would likely have received a pass from the right flank for what McCarthy had just done reveals a deeper driving factor behind House Republican dysfunction.
It looks like Johnson — who is, above all, well-liked and respected — might get some of that grace. At least for now.
“He has a ton of credibility,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND). “This job ensures that it is done quickly. But he has a better chance than most of making it.”