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#5 challenges facing new Speaker Mike Johnson

There is, finally, a Speaker.

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) ascended to the role Wednesday, three weeks and one day after eight GOP House members ignited chaos by ousting Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Johnson got the unanimous support of his colleagues on the House floor, an achievement that proved impossible for Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.).

Johnson is a staunch social conservative, as well as a strong ally of former President Trump. Johnson aided Trump’s quest to overturn the 2020 election result.

Johnson has his hands on the gavel, but there are plenty of challenges ahead.

Can he unify his conference?

House Republicans have burned through most of October with their self-inflicted Speakership debacle.

It has produced moments when tempers burned red-hot.

During one meeting, Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.) was widely reported to have “almost lunged” in frustration at Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who led the move to oust McCarthy.

When Jordan was seeking the Speakership, Republican dissenters openly accused his allies of inciting threats against them.

Ill-feeling was rampant along other fault lines, too, including supporters of Scalise, who were furious at what they perceived to be a lack of support from Jordan loyalists.

Johnson at least has the moral authority that comes from his resounding win. 

The exhaustion felt across the GOP conference will also help him, lowering the appetite for any new internecine drama.

Still, the wounds from the past few weeks are deep. Johnson faces a tough job in trying to bind them up.

Can he keep the government open?

The next deadline for a government shutdown is looming. And the time burnt off the clock by the Speaker chaos could prove critical.

The government will shut down if a deal is not reached by Nov. 17.

But the omens are hardly promising for reaching an agreement.

Johnson’s predecessor, McCarthy, was doomed by his decision to approve a stopgap deal that leaned heavily on Democratic support.

Now, Johnson faces the task of threading a similarly fine needle. 

Republicans want spending cuts and increased funding for border security, but the Democratic majority in the Senate is sure to balk at such demands unless there are substantial sweeteners.

The road ahead is unclear. A politically toxic shutdown is very plausible.

Dealing with Ukraine

The war in Ukraine is now 20 months old, with no end in sight.

American popular support for aiding Kyiv in its efforts to repel the invasion masterminded by Russian President Vladimir Putin has eroded but not collapsed.

The issue has also become increasingly partisan, with Republican voters — and GOP elected officials, especially on the hard right of the party — growing increasingly skeptical.

In an Economist/YouGov poll published Wednesday, a plurality of Republican voters, 38 percent, wanted the U.S. to decrease aid to Ukraine, while only 11 percent of Democrats felt the same way. 

Thirty-four percent of Republicans wanted to keep aid at its current level, and 15 percent of GOP voters wanted that aid increased.

The issue has roiled the Republican conference, with figures such as Gaetz and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) being especially vociferous in their opposition.

Johnson himself has tempered his earlier support for backing Ukraine. He voted against two appropriations bills that provided aid to the eastern European nation and has suggested the Ukrainian government needs to be more “transparent” about how it is using the money.

The legislative politics of the issue are complicated, however. President Biden has hitched together aid for Ukraine and aid for Israel, as well as other causes, in a $106 billion supplemental request.

Johnson, like most members of both parties, is a strong advocate of additional aid to Israel in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in which around 1,400 Israelis were killed.

How does he deal with former President Trump?

In one sense, Johnson owes his Speakership to Trump.

On Tuesday, Emmer had won the internal GOP conference vote to become the party’s nominee for Speaker. But he also encountered resistance from roughly two dozen House members who are staunch supporters of the former president.

As Emmer tried to win them over, Trump landed on Truth Social with a post blasting the majority whip as a “globalist RINO” who was “out of touch” with the GOP base. The writing was on the wall after that.

Trump was more welcoming to Johnson, as expected. 

In the tumultuous period after the 2020 election, Johnson was a key proponent of an amicus brief that would have invalidated the election results in four states.

Johnson also amplified Trump’s false claims of election fraud. And he duly voted, even in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, to object to election results.

Those actions will endear him to the former president and the party base.

But they also provide an inviting target for Democrats seeking to make the case the Speaker and his party are extremists.

Johnson’s close bond with Trump will also prove complicated if, as is likely, the former president makes electorally unhelpful interventions. 

Keeping the House majority

Johnson has the support of all his colleagues for now, but his hold on the gavel is tenuous because of the slimness of the GOP majority.

There are 221 Republicans, 212 Democrats and two vacant seats in the House.

The 18 Republicans who represent districts carried by President Biden in 2020 will be the top Democratic targets in 2024, when Trump looks likely to top the GOP ticket.

Johnson needs to find a way to ease their passage to reelection while keeping the support of a party that remains in thrall to Trump.

It’s far from an easy task. 

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