WASHINGTON?— Back in October, when House Republicans were facing another leadership crisis, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, tried to explain why conservatives head off in different directions when they should be joining forces.
“You are intimately aware of the 'Lone Ranger' status, the independence, the ‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death’ (convictions) of many conservatives, of many Republicans. I think that’s where you really have that tension,” Graves explained to MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, himself a former Republican member of the U.S. House.
It’s that dynamic that House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-Benton, is having to try to navigate, with the slimmest of majorities. On Tuesday night, he crashed into the rocks, very publicly.
First, House Republicans tried to impeach Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in what was almost universally understood to be a symbolic gesture. But they came up short, essentially by a single vote. Then the leadership got pummeled again when the far right joined Democrats to defeat a $17.6 billion measure for Israel’s war against Hamas.
The New Republic called the two losing votes “a spectacular embarrassment for Johnson.” He was elected speaker Oct. 25 following three weeks of GOP turmoil after Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was ousted by far-right Republicans and Democrats.
True, the magazine is a must-read for liberals, but The New Republic is hardly the only outlet to suggest an inexperienced Johnson’s missteps have kept a philosophically fractured Republican majority from coalescing enough to pass legislation the right views as vital.
The conservative National Review, for instance, wrote that “Johnson finds himself in a no-win situation of his own making.”
Dozens of articles about Johnson in mainstream media and Capitol Hill trades traced similar themes.
Under the headline “Johnson Stumbles,” The New York Times posited: “The back-to-back defeats highlighted the litany of problems Mr. Johnson inherited the day he was elected speaker … Saddled with a razor-thin margin of control, and a deeply divided conference that has proved repeatedly to be a majority in name only, he has struggled to corral his unruly colleagues and made a series of decisions that only added to his own challenges.”
The decisions included using a parliamentary procedure that requires Democratic support for legislation when Republicans can’t deliver the votes, and calling floor votes without being sure of the outcome in advance?— as occurred with the abortive Mayorkas impeachment.
Just about every article quoted Rep. Steve Womack, a conservative Republican from Arkansas known for his respect of the institution.
“The personality of the conference is that we want to push forward for things we truly believe in, but then we trip ourselves up over some nonsensical things,” Womack told Politico.
Womack told The Washington Post that House leadership needed to count votes better.
At a news conference Wednesday, Johnson said democracy was messy and insinuated that a seemingly sure win was torpedoed when Rep. Al Green, who was in the hospital and not expected to vote, dramatically rode into the chamber in a wheelchair wearing scrubs to cast the decisive vote. A 76-year-old New Orleans native and major player in Democratic Houston politics since the 1970s, Green said Mayorkas was a friend who needed his support against the spurious charges of House Republicans.
As he left the floor Tuesday night, the only thing Johnson would say is that he’d run the impeachment vote again.
Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson and Johnson’s No. 2, is returning to Capitol Hill this week after receiving cancer treatments. Scalise presumably would provide the single additional vote necessary to impeach Mayorkas, provided everyone else showed up and voted the way they did last week.
Scalise’s return could help the House GOP overcome internal disagreements over how much funding federal agencies should receive for the fiscal year that began more than four months ago, and when to debate a newly filed resolution that says former President Donald Trump did not engage in insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, when rioters stormed the Capitol. Sixty-five House Republicans, including Rep. Clay Higgins, of Lafayette, have signed on as co-sponsors.
Few House Republicans predict, at least for the time being, that Johnson’s days are numbered. Despite much grousing, none have said so on the record.
Johnson is a close ally to Trump, and the former president has been calling most of the shots for the GOP of late. That helps Johnson.
Also, perhaps more importantly, House Republicans say aren’t sure if anyone taking Johnson's place would do a better job. One congressional supporter likened Johnson to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War — buffeted by opponents from outside and inside the Republican Party — but didn’t want to be quoted saying so publicly.