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Mike Johnson’s Five Stages of Speakership Grief

When House Republicans crowned Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) their speaker after a chaotic, weeks-long interregnum, the quiet congressman from Louisiana offered Republicans something many craved deeply: unity.

As House Republicans rallied behind Johnson in a closed-door meeting just over 100 days ago, they breathed a collective sigh of relief. The House GOP finally had a leader after former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ouster. And Johnson—a bookish, deeply religious, mild-mannered conservative—promised them respite from the infighting they had come to expect from their conference.

On the eve of his ascension, just minutes after Johnson won in a closed-door vote with just Republicans, House GOP members literally stood behind him—projecting a picture of togetherness—cheering on their soon-to-be new speaker as he addressed the press for the first time as the next-man-up.

“Democracy is messy sometimes, but it is our system. This conference that you see, this House Republican majority, is united,” Johnson said.

And to the American people, Johnson made a pledge: Republicans would restore trust in their House majority.

“This group here is ready to govern, and we are going to govern well,” Johnson vowed.

But as Johnson crosses the 100 day milestone of his speakership, his conference remains deeply divided. House Republicans disagree on policy, procedure, and politics. And many blame Johnson for a lack of direction and conservative victories.

“I’m not satisfied,” conservative Rep. Eli Crane (R-AZ)—one of the eight rebels who voted to boot McCarthy—told The Daily Beast.

“I’ll be his biggest cheerleader when he does something conservative,” Crane said of Johnson. “But when we continue to do what Republicans seem to do up here and kick the can down the road and say, ‘Oh, well, we’ll fight next time we promise you.’ I’m gonna be critical of that.”

DENIAL

While House Republicans across the political spectrum maintain that Johnson is an amiable guy who cares deeply about the conservative movement, many aren’t sold on his leadership skills. Conservative lawmakers have raged about Johnson’s inability to deliver right-wing wins to showcase as the House GOP clings to its paper-thin majority.

Several GOP lawmakers told The Daily Beast they are worried Johnson talks from both sides of his mouth, telling members what they want to hear, and then not following through. He announced in November he was done relying on short-term spending bills—then passed another. He said he would not put a short-term extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act into the annual defense bill, and then did just that. Conservatives also accuse Johnson of misleading them on topline government funding figures.

“He says whatever he needs to say to make everyone happy, which makes you an ineffective leader,” said one Republican lawmaker, granted anonymity to speak candidly. “I mean, there’s just a lot of lip service to people, making them feel like they’re being heard without actually making a decision.”

“All that being said, you know, he’s doing a pretty crappy job,” the lawmaker continued.

The speaker’s shifting policy stances are at the top of the GOP’s list of grievances. Disgruntled right-wing lawmakers have bashed Johnson’s shifting positions on critical issues.

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) (center) walks through the United States Capitol Rotunda with Senators Ron Johnson (R-WI), left, and Rick Scott (R-FL).

SPORT/

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) (center) walks through the United States Capitol Rotunda with Senators Ron Johnson (R-WI), left, and Rick Scott (R-FL).

Jack Gruber/USA TODAY

Last year, for example, Johnson assured his Republican colleagues that a November short-term government spending bill—which continued funding levels that passed when Democrats controlled the House—would be the last his conference had to stomach this fiscal year.

“I’m done with short-term CRs,” Johnson said at the time.

But again, that promise was short-lived. Johnson shepherded another short-term spending measure through the House last month to avert a partial government shutdown.

“They’re continuing to set expectations beyond what’s possible,” a second Republican lawmaker said of Johnson. “And I think that’s ultimately going to come back to haunt him.”

Privately, Johnson’s conversations with lawmakers have given the speaker’s right-flank the impression that he’s on their side. But when the new speaker emerges with a legislative plan running counter to those conversations, it’s just exacerbating the tensions. He builds up expectations only to let conservatives down.

That dynamic was perhaps best illustrated by the latest short-term spending bill.

When Johnson and Senate Leadership agreed on another stopgap, members of the Freedom Caucus tried to convince Johnson to include immigration restrictions in a stopgap measure.

As they left the meeting, Freedom Caucus Chairman Bob Good (R-VA) announced to reporters that Johnson was “considering” adding border security measures to the continuing resolution and was “working through the mechanics.”

But that wasn’t the case. Johnson’s deputy chief of staff for communications, Raj Shah, quickly confirmed the “plan has not changed.” The measure never included border security provisions.

Of course, no short-term spending bill was ever going to get signed into law with sweeping, hardline immigration changes attached to it. But Johnson’s seeming openness to that plan only caused more frustration.

Earlier this year, when Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced an agreement on topline spending figures, conservatives were livid that there weren’t deeper cuts. The GOP detractors met with Johnson to urge him to change course. Once again, as conservatives left Johnson’s office, they repeatedly told reporters that Johnson was reneging on his deal with Schumer.

But, just like last time, that wasn’t the case. Johnson later affirmed he was sticking by his original pact.

ANGER

Johnson’s approach navigating his conference delays the displeasure, he makes it seem like he’s taking all viewpoints seriously, but when he gives in to the outcome everyone always expected, he’s incurring conservative wrath. Part of the problem for Johnson is that, for every GOP crisis, he has to walk his conference through the five stages of grief—only his long embrace of denial makes the anger stage much worse.

Yet another GOP lawmaker told The Daily Beast that Johnson’s prolonged vacillating is borne out of a “desire to not offend.” But ultimately, when he caves, it “offends everyone and leaves all sides with a sour taste in their mouth.”

His FISA flip-flop particularly stirred up hostility. With the section 702 of FISA—a powerful spy tool that enables the federal government the to surveil foreigners without a warrant for national security purposes—set to expire at the end of last year, Johnson scrambled to either fully reauthorize it with reforms, or extend the current version of FISA 702 into March by attaching it to the annual defense authorization bill.

The latter proposal angered conservatives calling for reform. Yet again, Johnson initially told those lawmakers he would’t add a short-term extension to the annual defense bill. Three days later, Johnson caved and attached it to the defense measure.

“I’m not really sure what changed,” Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH) told The Washington Examiner at the time.

Most recently, Johnson’s stance on a bipartisan tax bill has riled conservatives. A deal struck between House Ways and Means Chair Jason Smith (R-MO) and Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) would bolster the child tax credit and boost tax breaks for corporate research and development. Smith reportedly announced a deal without the approval of top Republicans, and Johnson initially withheld a public position on the agreement. Meanwhile, conservatives raised hell over a costly measure likely to increase the national deficit.

“I’m sick of these gutless cowards in Washington. You know what we’re gonna put on the floor next week?” conservative Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) told Fox Radio last week. “A tax cut bill for corporations, because Republicans are whores for endless wars and corporations. That’s it. That’s what they stand for.”

While Johnson didn’t immediately back the compromise, he ultimately supported it, bringing it to a floor vote last Wednesday. The bill passed 357 to 70, with more Democrats voting in favor than Republicans.

It’s exactly these incidents—where Johnson initially talks tough, seems like he may side with conservatives, and then takes the side of moderate Republicans and Democrats—that has put his position increasingly in jeopardy. Just over 100 days into his new position, more and more Republicans are declaring the honeymoon over.

BARGAINING

Johnson hasn’t just angered Republicans because of his wishy-washy positions; his political inexperience materialized almost immediately on an issue sacred to many lawmakers: Israel.

In the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, Johnson chose a curious—and doomed—gambit that only succeeded in making his conference question his political acumen.

Supporters of Israel aid on both sides of the aisle hoped the House would act swiftly to pass $14.3 billion in aid to Israel. But rather than put a clean Israel aid bill to a floor vote, Johnson added $14.3 billion in cuts to the Internal Revenue Service to supposedly offset the foreign aid—a demand from his right-flank that would have actually increased U.S. debt by $26 billion over the next 10 years.

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) smiles as he reacts to the applause of members of the House after being elected to be the new Speaker.

USA-CONGRESS/SPEAKER

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) smiles as he reacts to the applause of members of the House after being elected to be the new Speaker.

Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

Still, many fiscal conservatives celebrated the move, while other Israel supporters decried Johnson’s gambit, worrying it set a dangerous precedent of conditioning foreign assistance and knowing it would stall the aid in the Senate.

Rep. Max Miller (R-OH)—one of two Jewish Republicans in Congress—lambasted Johnson for the decision at the time, telling Politico it was “a slap in the face to every Jew” and a “fucking dumb” choice.

On Wednesday, Miller doubled down on those comments, saying he still believes Johnson’s so-called offsets were a “gimmick.”

“I’ve been quiet now for about three months on. I mean, I think my comments speak for itself. I called it a gimmick, I said it was never going to go anywhere, and we will probably end up in this position,” Miller said.

Miller was right. The bill went nowhere. And now, nearly four months after the attack, Johnson has functionally admitted his mistake. On Saturday, Johnson sided with advocates of a clean Israel bill and said he would put an Israel-only, non-offset bill on the floor. He told colleagues he would bring a $17.6 billion Israel aid bill, without any conditions, to the floor for a vote this week.

A number of lawmakers praised that decision Saturday, but that praise is tempered by the fact that Johnson’s misstep delayed this aid for months—only so he could embarrassingly reverse course and admit his mistake.

DEPRESSION

Passing other foreign aid will be an uphill battle for Johnson. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) has been adamant that if Johnson brings a vote on Ukraine aid, she will try to oust him, plunging the House back into chaos.

Other members aren’t taking Greene’s threat that seriously. Miller doesn’t believe another ouster is a real threat and said “leadership should put things on the floor, let members decide, and respect their constituents wants and needs and be helpful.”

“If people weren’t so worried about keeping their jobs, as opposed to doing the right thing, then we’d see a lot more legislation hit the floor,” Miller said.

Of course, not everyone in the Republican conference is complaining about Johnson. Many conservatives continue to Johnson’s back, either holding strong that Johnson’s true beliefs will ultimately make a difference, or that he’ll take to the job in time. Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-WI)—a conservative lawmaker who was on Capitol grounds on Jan. 6 as a protester—told The Daily Beast he likes Johnson and blamed the Republicans who voted to remove McCarthy for creating the GOP dysfunction.

Van Orden particularly blamed one Republican.

“Chip Roy has a snowball’s chance in hell of ever being elected speaker,” Van Orden told The Daily Beast. “And if you can’t be in that leadership position, you need to watch your mouth.”

That continued ire toward the Republicans who pushed out McCarthy has been key in keeping Johnson afloat. Many blame those eight Republicans a lot more for the problems than Johnson.

Take Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R-FL). He acknowledged that the Republican conference has struggled under Johnson’s leadership, but he insisted that the eight rebels who removed McCarthy were to blame.

“In honesty, we were in a better place with Kevin McCarthy,” Gimenez told The Daily Beast. “Not a shot at Speaker Johnson, just the circumstances changed when Speaker McCarthy was removed.”

Gimenez continued that the conference was unified under McCarthy. “And then that removal caused a rift in the conference,” he said.

Other than removing Johnson and causing more dysfunction in an election year, Johnson’s GOP detractors don’t have much recourse. Members of the House Freedom Caucus’ go-to move has been opposing procedural votes to protest Johnson-approved bills they deem too liberal.

But to subvert conservative tactics, Johnson has brought a number of key bills under what’s called a “suspension of the rules.” Bills under suspension require two-thirds of the House’s backing, so whenever Johnson uses this procedural move, he must rely on Democratic support.

This isn’t just to avoid a rule being blocked on the floor, but also in committee. To get the speakership, McCarthy agreed to stack the Rules Committee back in January with hardline conservatives. So, if all three conservatives on the committee oppose a bill, they could tank it before it gets to the floor. And that’s to say nothing of the slim margin Johnson has when he wants to adopt a rule on the floor, which is almost always a partisan vote where only a few Republicans could stop the bill in its tracks.

Consequently, Johnson has turned time and again to using suspension to bypass the Rules Committee, as well as the floor vote on the rule. That maneuver, bypassing the Rules Committee and the close floor procedural vote on the floor, has pissed off conservatives. But so far, it’s been the best way for Johnson to advance critical legislation.

While acknowledging that Johnson is a friend with a “tough job,” conservative Rep. Andy Ogles (R-TN) said he wants to see the conference follow the standard path for bills—the Rules Committee, a floor vote on the rule, and then passage.

“Hopefully, I and others will hold his feet to the fire,” Ogles said.

When The Daily Beast asked Ogles how he would hold Johnson accountable, he had an ominous response. “We’ll see,” he said.

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) makes a statement to reporters and television cameras on the outer steps of the House of Representatives.

USA-CONGRESS/SPEAKER

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) makes a statement to reporters and television cameras on the outer steps of the House of Representatives.

Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

Disgruntled lawmakers have blasted Johnson in the media, making his job more difficult as rumors swirl about another ouster. But unless a handful of rebels actually band together to remove Johnson—as eight Republicans did to McCarthy—there isn’t too much Johnson’s detractors can do to stand in the speaker’s way.

Without his razor-thin House majority standing firmly behind him, Johnson has few other places to turn for allies. House Democrats aren’t exactly jumping to Johnson’s defense, but some Democrats have said they would consider backing Johnson if his conference tries to defenestrate him. For many Democrats, though, the jury is still out on the speaker.

ACCEPTANCE?

Leadership ally Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI)—who voted alongside every Democrat to oust McCarthy in October—said he hasn’t noticed much difference between Johnson and McCarthy.

“Different singers, same song,” Kildee told The Daily Beast.

Kildee said Johnson promised Democrats when he was elected speaker that he would surprise them by being more willing to work across the aisle than McCarthy. But Kildee said Johnson has “fallen short.”

“He seems to have fallen victim to the ideological bent of some of his more extreme caucus members. We’ll see if he’s able to work through that,” Kildee said. “So far, not so good.”

The speaker also hasn’t made many powerful friends in the Senate. The upper chamber has been tackling a multi-pronged defense supplemental bill that includes aid for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and immigration restrictions. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have blessed the months-long negotiations—and McConnell has particularly expressed his support for Ukraine aid and advancing a compromise to tighten the border.

Johnson, however, has pooh-poohed those talks. He’s said any fruit the negotiations bear will be dead on arrival in the House. That obstructionism hasn’t exactly endeared him to Senate leadership.

Johnson does have one powerful Republican backer, at least for now: former President Donald Trump.

As Johnson has stood firmly against a bipartisan immigration deal—something that could hurt Trump’s re-election bid—he’s captured the former president’s affections. Having Trump on his side—however long that lasts—may shield Johnson from Republican barbs as lawmakers try to stay in the former president’s good graces.

“He’s going to prove to be a very good speaker. It’s tough when you have a very small majority. Very tough,” Trump said at a rally Saturday.

Whether that small majority takes Johnson out—either in the same manner they took out McCarthy, after Election Day, or by virtue of his inability to get anything done—remains to be seen.

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