News Analysis: Mike Johnson just did the same thing that cost Kevin McCarthy his job

Kevin McCarthy’s 269-day tenure as House speaker was spoiled by his frequent reliance on bipartisanship.

At least, that’s how some of his fellow Republicans saw it. The eight rogue GOP lawmakers who voted on Oct. 3 to remove the Californian from the speakership repeatedly complained that he too often turned to Democrats for help passing key legislation. The Bakersfield Republican relied on Democratic votes to suspend the nation’s debt limit in May and to stave off a government shutdown in September.

Replacing McCarthy with Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson was supposed to solve that problem — and result in more conservative governance.

But on Tuesday afternoon, Johnson became the latest House GOP speaker to require Democratic help to keep Washington running.

In a 336-95 vote on Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved bills that will delay a government shutdown until next year. But Democrats provided more than half of the votes for the plan, which just 127 Republicans supported.

Senate Democrats signaled they would approve the bills and President Biden is expected to sign them, despite the White House grumbling over the weekend about House Republicans’ unusual approach to the process.

Johnson’s two-step plan is unlike other stopgap funding plans. Most bills that avoid a shutdown simply extend funding to a specific calendar date. Johnson’s bills staggers the extensions. Funding for departments Republicans traditionally want to cut — Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education — would lapse on Jan. 19, while the rest of the bills, including ones that fund agencies that are traditionally noncontroversial, such as the military, would lapse on Feb. 2.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had previously blasted the approach, calling it “a recipe for more Republican chaos and more shutdowns — full stop.”

The plan was initially championed by the archconservative House Freedom Caucus. But hours before the vote, the group came out against the spending bills, complaining they did not cut spending or bolster border security.

“While we remain committed to working with Speaker Johnson, we need bold change,” the unsigned statement said.

Before the vote, Johnson said his sympathies were with the far-right caucus. “I want to cut spending right now,” Johnson said early Tuesday. “But when we have a three-vote majority as we do right now, we don’t have the votes to be able to advance that.”

Congress needs to avoid a shutdown that would “unduly harm the American people,” Johnson said. He said his plan would bolster conservatives as they negotiate with Democrats next year over the federal budget border spending and funding for Ukraine and Israel.

Johnson said he is not concerned about losing his job. “This is a very different situation,” he said.

Johnson’s lack of concern may be justified — this time, at least, said Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based center-right think tank.

Many Republicans had a deep distrust of McCarthy, who didn’t seem guided by particularly strong ideological views, even before he became speaker, Ornstein argued. Because of that, “no matter how much McCarthy bent over backwards to accommodate a lunatic fringe, there going to be someone who didn’t like him,” Ornstein added.

Johnson, by contrast, is “clearly a card carrying member” of the far-right, and ultraconservatives will cut him more slack than they did McCarthy, Ornstein said. By embracing the Freedom Caucus’ proposal for a stopgap measure, he signaled to arch-conservatives in his party that he was their ally.

Even though many Republicans are against the measure, the memory of the “humiliating farce of trying to find a speaker” is still with them and “enough of them are just pragmatic enough to know that shutting down the government would be blamed on them,” Ornstein said.

Besides, Johnson is still in his honeymoon period, Ornstein noted. Less than two weeks have passed since his caucus unanimously voted to hand him the speaker’s gavel.

“That doesn’t mean, by the way, that we’re out of the woods the next time around,” he added. “I don’t think Johnson has the cushion for another clean [extension] that he’ll be able to get away with it.”

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