How Speaker Johnson Is Navigating a Restive House Republican Conference

How Speaker Johnson Is Navigating a Restive House Republican Conference
(Illustration by The Epoch Times, Getty Images, Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)
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WASHINGTON—Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, first met a young Mike Johnson “way back when” in their home state of Louisiana. He helped Mr. Johnson gain his footing as an attorney and said he still talks regularly with the now-speaker of the House.

“He jokes that when I was in office, he used to carry my briefcase. I can’t vouch for that, but I'll take him at his word,” Mr. Perkins told The Epoch Times with a chuckle, referring to his years as a Bayou State Republican legislator, starting in 1994.

It was in the state legislature that Mr. Perkins said he first learned that achieving fundamental public policy changes almost always “takes years and years of incremental gains.”

Pro-life advocates, for example, spent decades working to reverse the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that pushed abortion regulation back to the states.

Early in his legislative career, Mr. Perkins won passage of one of the first state abortion clinic regulation acts in the country.

“Mike was the attorney representing the woman who had the malpractice case that we used,” Mr. Perkins recalled.

More recently, he said Mr. Johnson has shown he learned the same lesson, steering a deeply fractious and razor-thin Republican majority, while defeating an effort to remove him from the top job in the House of Representatives.

Also on display has been a deep divide among congressional Republicans over how best to confront and control what they view as the costly, freedom-threatening leviathan that Democrats have made of the federal government.

On one side are lawmakers including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), plus a varying cast of members of the House Freedom Caucus, who say they are tired of constantly caving into Democrats on major issues. They want Mr. Johnson and the GOP leadership to push all-or-nothing votes that seek to repeal or defund President Joe Biden’s major initiatives.

On the other side is the rest of the House Republican conference, most of whom, like Mr. Johnson, are also conservatives, along with a shrinking contingent of moderates.

They prefer workable compromises, however, to concretely advance conservative goals, instead of “big” votes that are doomed to fail, thus gaining nothing.

Ms. Greene’s May 8 motion to vacate the speaker’s chair to replace Mr. Johnson was rejected on a 359–43 vote. There are no guarantees that the Georgia Republican won’t try again, but every House Republican interviewed by The Epoch Times for this story expressed abject weariness with such conflict.

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Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) speaks during a news conference about a motion to vacate House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), in Washington on May 1, 2024. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)

Asked by The Epoch Times if there are circumstances in which he would favor all-or-nothing House votes, Mr. Johnson noted that “President Reagan often told [his White House chief of staff] James Baker and other aides that he would rather get 80 percent of what he wants than to go over the cliff with his flag flying.”

The unavoidable reality, said Mr. Johnson, is that, with Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House, and House GOP having only a one- or two-vote majority, “Congress is a body built on legislative consensus, and, while there may be scenarios where it seems prudent to plant our flag and refuse to compromise, those decisions must be driven by consensus and also the possibility of success.”

Rep. Andy Ogles (R-Tenn.), a House Freedom Caucus member, said he respects the speaker and recognizes the importance of Mr. Johnson’s steady temperament and friendly demeanor, but he disagrees strongly with some of his most important calls in 2024.

“What Mike Johnson brought to the table is he is one of the nicest guys in Congress, he’s incredibly well-liked, he’s conservative,” Mr. Ogles told The Epoch Times. “He was probably the only person who could have gotten the necessary votes to be speaker in a short period of time.”

Mr. Ogles referred to the three-week marathon that followed the Oct. 3, 2023, ouster of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), when eight conservative GOP rebels joined 208 House Democrats on a motion to vacate.

What followed were intense but failed efforts by House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to secure enough votes in the GOP conference to succeed Mr. McCarthy.

Other candidates appeared, were talked up by colleagues in the media, and then faded.

Mr. Johnson emerged as the winner on Oct. 25, 2023.

“I want to tell all my colleagues here what I told the Republicans in that room last night: I don’t believe there are any coincidences in a matter like this,” Mr Johnson said in his first remarks to the full House as speaker.

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Newly elected Speaker of the House Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) speaks in the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 25, 2023. After four candidates failed over a three-week period, Mr. Johnson was voted in to succeed ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

“I believe that scripture, the Bible, is very clear that God is the one that raises up those in authority. He raised up each of you, all of us. And I believe that God has allowed and ordained each and every one of us to be here at this specific moment.”

Mr. Johnson told The Epoch Times he prays “often.”

“The Bible encourages us to ‘pray without ceasing,’ which to me is really a reminder for us to maintain the right attitude before God, to seek His wisdom and guidance, and to walk humbly with Him. I try to do that every day,” he said.

Mr. Johnson’s most basic challenge from the outset of his speakership has been that he presides over a tiny majority (218 to 212). Even that margin has at times been reduced to one vote, due to GOP resignations, including that of Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), Mr. McCarthy, and the expulsion of Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.).

Prominent among issues cited most often by Mr. Johnson’s critics in the House were the reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and foreign aid.

Congress added Section 702 to FISA in 2008 to allow the intelligence surveillance of communications by non-U.S. citizens located outside the United States. Concerns emerge when those foreigners talk to Americans whose communications are protected from warrantless searches by the Fourth Amendment.

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Permission for the surveillance must come from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and must be renewed annually.

Ultimately, Mr. Johnson opted to support a measure that kept Section 702 as-is but included more than 50 FISA reforms sought by conservatives.

On the FISA issue, Mr. Ogles believes “there was a way this played out that could have protected the Fourth Amendment and yet you would have still got some of the other reforms.

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A member of the U.S. Capitol Police stands in a hallway at the U.S. Capitol on May 14, 2020. Mr. Johnson has been criticized over his handling of the reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and foreign aid packages. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“Would have been a win-win ... but the way it played out, it was delayed. Now the history has been written and in my humble opinion, the American people [lost].”

Mr. Perkins has a different take on the ultimate outcomes of the FISA and supplemental spending issues. On the national security supplemental, he said Mr. Johnson would have been aware that had the bill been sent through via a discharge petition, no reforms would have been included.

Mr. Perkins said a discharge petition “was already stirring and three-quarters of the Democrats would be for it and half the Republicans wanted it.”

When 218 House members sign such a petition, legislation that is being held up in committee must be reported to the floor for a vote by the House.

Mr. Johnson told The Epoch Times he sees the ultimate outcome as a careful victory for conservative principles.

“It wasn’t a perfect bill, but it is evidence that we can secure conservative victories in a challenging political environment,” he said.

He pointed out that the final version of the bill included provisions for TikTok divestiture, a process for using seized Russian financial assets to help Ukraine rebuild, and making much of the ongoing U.S. aid to Ukraine repayable.

Interviews with multiple House Republicans suggest that Mr. Johnson’s most significant miscue was initially coupling new U.S. foreign aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan with the closure of the U.S. border with Mexico as “the hill to die on,” then dropping the border requirement and instead allowing separate votes on aid packages to those countries.

“I’ve got some grace for him. I think Mike made a mistake when he said it was the hill to die on but then he couldn’t fulfill his statement. That hurt his credibility,” said one House Republican, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“I told him, ‘Mike, you have to figure out a way because truthfulness is part of your reputation and when you said the border was the hill to die on, your credibility was compromised there,’” the member told The Epoch Times.

The member also said the speaker failed to ensure that House members were sufficiently aware of how critical the aid to Israel had become because of the near-exhaustion of stocks for its David’s Sling and Iron Dome anti-missile defense systems.

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Israeli military forces fire rockets from the Iron Dome defense system to intercept rockets launched from the Gaza Strip, near Sderot on May 13, 2023. Mr. Johnson's financial aid plan included three separate packages to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. (Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images)

On April 14, Iran had launched more than 300 missiles and drones at Israel, 99 percent of which were shot down by the Israel Defense Forces, with assistance from U.S. aircraft.

Despite the criticism, the vast majority of House Republicans expect Mr. Johnson to remain speaker through the end of the 118th Congress.

“I think he has handled the day-to-day, the tense, difficult, and sometimes unpredictable environment in a very good, metered way, so yes, I give him a plus for his temperament,” Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.) told The Epoch Times.

“It’s a very, very difficult job and it’s going to continue for the remainder of this Congress to be difficult, so it’s going to take a temperament similar to Johnson’s to hold it all together,” Mr. Fleischmann said. “I think he will continue to do that.”

The biggest factor determining Mr. Johnson’s future in House leadership will be the Nov. 5 elections.

“If he increases the House Republican majority and if President Trump wins the presidency and wants him to be speaker, then it’s virtually impossible to beat him,” said former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

“But now if they lose the majority, I would not think he would be the Minority Leader.”

Mr. Gingrich said the speaker is doing an effective job raising money for the campaign and has made important appearances, such as speaking on the Columbia University campus to condemn anti-Semitic behavior there and at dozens of schools across the country.

“If he keeps that pace up, he should be in pretty good shape come January,” Mr. Gingrich said, adding that he doubts House Republicans in the next Congress will be open to a repeat of the “long drawn-out warfare” that led to Mr. McCarthy’s ouster.

“I think we are in the middle of a relatively historic political realignment,” Republican strategist Tim Phillips told The Epoch Times.

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Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.) holds a news conference after meeting with Jewish students, as pro-Palestinian students and activists continue to protest on the Columbia University campus in New York City on April 24, 2024. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

“College-educated suburbanites who are white-collar have moved more to where they are predominantly cultural Democrats.”

Mr. Phillips, who was president of the conservative nonprofit activist group Americans for Prosperity from 2006 to 2021, said such voters are occasionally winnable for Republicans but their default voting inclination is Democrat.

But at the same time, growing numbers of black and Hispanic voters, who are traditionally Democrat, are beginning to move Republican.

This trend is stronger among blue-collar Hispanics who have been in the country for more than a decade and among young black males.

Mr. Phillips believes the speaker is encouraging this trend by providing strong and steady articulation of a broadly conservative policy agenda that works for most Americans.

Mr. Johnson said he is planning for the 119th Congress and a big night on Nov. 5 for Republicans—with a win for former President Trump, a majority for Senate Republicans, and a significant margin for House Republicans.

“Under President Biden’s administration, every single area of public policy has cratered. We have so many things to fix and all of them are urgent,” he told The Epoch Times.

He is meeting and talking regularly with former President Trump as well as Senate and House Republican colleagues to iron out an agenda for the first 100 days.

“I believe President Trump could be the most consequential president of my lifetime in his second term, and he will need a Congress ready to deliver results on Day 1. So, we’re planning for that,” he said.

The agenda, he said, focuses on “border security, regulatory reform, taxes, energy, and many other priorities that are top of mind for the American people.”

Mr. Johnson said he also plans to devote significant resources and political capital to restoring congressional oversight authority.

“As we prepare for the 119th Congress, we are examining various options through the appropriations process and the legislative process to reclaim our Article I authority and reduce the size and scope of bloated, inefficient government,” he said.

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