WASHINGTON (AP) — As new Speaker Mike Johnson grabbed hold of the House gavel, he made a plea for Americans to “give me a chance" before making up their minds about the newcomer's ability to lead the far-right House Republican majority that elected him to power.
What Johnson has shown in his first big test as the House passed a nearly $14.5 billion military aid package to Israel is that the easy-going social conservative is more than eager to lift up the priorities of his right flank rather than reach toward the political center in the name of compromise.
By seeking to force the Israel-Hamas war package to be paid for with government spending cuts, something rarely required in emergencies of war or natural disasters, Johnson turned what’s normally an overwhelming bipartisan issue, support for Israel, into one that bitterly split Democrats from Republicans. President Joe Biden threatened a veto.
It's a stark example of what may come — or not. The looming government shutdown deadline, Biden's nearly $106 billion request for aid to Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and U.S. border security policy and the presidential impeachment inquiry are all demanding attention from the untested new leader.
“That’s his very first opening move?” asked an incredulous Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a close Biden ally, echoing the sentiment of many Democrats on Capitol Hill.
“Congress is all about what caucus and which members are driving you and setting your priorities,” he said. “And part of the challenge the House seems to be having is the House Republican caucus has deep divisions between their Main Street and their MAGA Republicans.”
Johnson, of Louisiana, is trying to accomplish the seemingly impossible — uniting a fractured House Republican majority where the past GOP leaders before him have very publicly and dramatically fallen short.
The new speaker, who is closely aligned with Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner in the 2024 election, has positioned himself as someone who can unite the GOP's flanks. A low-key, lower-rung leader, he surprisingly rose to the top spot after more tested or fiery contenders — Steve Scalise, Jim Jordan and Tom Emmer — were brushed aside to replace the ousted former speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif..
In Johnson, House Republicans ultimately found the leader it now seems they always wanted since taking control in January — a Trump defender who challenged the 2020 election results, voted against certifying the election for Biden and reflects the deeply conservative and growing Christian nationalist wing of the GOP.
“A lot of these people don’t know me,” Johnson told Fox News host Sean Hannity in the first of multiple interviews on the cable show. “Give me a chance. Let me have a chance to lead here, and you will see what I’m really about.”
While Johnson found quick political success in his first week on the job with House passage of the Israel aid package, he is keenly aware it is a short-lived victory. The package, with its plan to pay for the aid with cuts to the IRS, would actually end up costing the government billions in lost revenue from tax dodgers, according to budget scorekeepers. and is headed toward a dismal defeat. The Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has already rejected it.
The speaker took the risk, ceding to the far-right's demands to reduce the size of government, and calculating that doing so will position House Republicans with the strongest hand as they fight Biden and the Senate.
Jordan, a firebrand former rival allied with Johnson, said the new speaker is doing a “good job."
But the chairman of the Democratic caucus, Rep. Pete Aguilar, said Johnson took a flat out “wrong” move.
Democrats argue that Johnson could have launched his speakership on a consensus note and won a full vote of support on the Israel aid package, with hundreds of Democrats and Republicans coming together to support the top U.S. ally in the Middle East. But instead he chose a divisive, starkly partisan path.
“We're learning a lot about the new speaker,” Aguilar of California said at a press conference at the Capitol.
“These are the things that Speaker Johnson has to advocate to appease the most extreme members,” he said. “They are his base. They are who gave him the gavel.”
After so much turmoil in the House this year, there is little time left for Republicans in the majority to accomplish the big goals they promised voters they would set out to do.
The year-end calendar is pressing down on Johnson in disadvantageous ways, starting with this month’s deadline to fund the government by Nov. 17 or risk another federal shutdown. A lapse in government funding is what McCarthy successfully avoided in a compromise with Democrats, but it resulted in Republicans kicking him out of the speaker’s office.
Johnson also has signaled the Biden impeachment inquiry may soon come to actual impeachment proceedings. “I do believe that very soon, we are coming to a point of decision,” he told reporters.
Johnson has promised he would turn next to Ukraine as Congress tries to broker a compromise package that would provide money to help Kyiv fight Russia as part of a broader deal to beef up security at the U.S. Mexico border as well.
During the Hannity interview Johnson signaled a break from the GOP's rising non-interventionist wing, and vowed the Congress would not “abandon” Ukraine.
“We can’t allow Vladimir Putin to prevail in Ukraine,” he said about the Russian president.
But Johnson said the U.S. has stewardship over "the precious treasure of the American people." And he said House Republicans want to know the administration's strategy: “What is the endgame in Ukraine?"
It's a high-stakes trial for the new speaker, who met with Biden his first day on the job in what he first said was a very good meeting, before questioning the president’s “age and acumen" later on Fox.
The White House and its allies have allowed little of a honeymoon for the new speaker. In the administration's stark veto message it said the Israel package's "new and damaging precedent would have devastating implications for our safety and alliances in the years ahead."
Still, the White House has begun reaching out to allies over the border security demands Johnson is making in return for the aid to Ukraine.
A former House Republican, Sen. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, said Washington is underestimating Johnson.
“You’ll see consistency, consistency out of Mike,” said Mullin. “Mike will not be a guy that’s going to get rattled, he’s not going to get excited."