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Speaker Mike Johnson Seeks to Govern the Ungovernable

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When members of Congress return to Washington from their home districts, they often trudge to Capitol Hill for a tally known as a “bed check,” a low-stakes vote series that is mostly aimed at taking attendance.

On Tuesday night, even though Republicans ostensibly control the House, more Democrats were actually present in the chamber for both of those votes — making the exercise a temporary reminder of just how painful this moment is for Speaker Mike Johnson.

The majority led by Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, keeps shrinking. Restive members of the far-right Freedom Caucus frequently derail his plans. And he is on a collision course with former President Donald Trump and a broader swath of the Republican rank and file over issues like aid to Ukraine, while Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene dangles a threat to oust him.

“The Lord Jesus himself could not manage this conference,” Representative Troy Nehls of Texas, a Republican, said on CNN this week. “You just can’t do it.”

Amid the tumult, Johnson appeared at Mar-a-Lago on Friday in an apparent effort to shore up his support from the former president. The hope, it seemed, was that the two could see past their differences if they united around something that fires up the Republican base: stoking unfounded distrust in the election.

During the joint appearance, Johnson said he would introduce a bill that would “require proof of citizenship to vote” and baselessly claimed that undocumented voters could tip American elections, even though voting by people who are not citizens is exceedingly rare. And he got what he had most likely come for: a full-throated endorsement from the former president.

“I stand with the speaker,” Trump said.

I spoke with my colleague Catie Edmondson, who covers Congress for the The New York Times, about Johnson’s delicate dance with Trump as the speaker faces his most precarious moment yet in a tenuous term.

JB: Let’s start with a simple question. What is the fundamental problem facing Johnson as speaker?

CE: The ouster of former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in October showed that, regardless of who is the leader of the Republican conference, it is an unwieldy group of people that is, in some ways, ungovernable.

It’s not a functioning majority. There are members of the Freedom Caucus preventing Johnson from even bringing legislation to the floor for a vote, which is what we saw Wednesday as he attempted to extend a key surveillance tool. Greene is using the threat of ouster to torment him. It’s a world of hurt for him right now.

JB: Johnson cut a deal to reauthorize that surveillance law this morning. He says he is looking for a way to advance Ukraine aid after refusing to put the issue to a vote. He has also kept government open with the help of Democrats. These are all the kinds of things he generally would have voted against as a rank-and-file member, as you’ve observed. How has being the speaker shifted his priorities?

CE: Johnson has described the experience of receiving classified briefings about intelligence and volatile situations abroad as sobering. He’s no longer solely responsible for representing his very conservative district. He is second in line to the presidency. He has to make sure government functions in a smooth fashion. He’s also responsible for protecting frontline Republicans in politically vulnerable districts. I think all of that has changed his worldview on some of these big decisions.

JB: How much sway does Trump hold over Johnson, and the House Republican conference writ large? What is the dance that Johnson has to do with Trump right now?

CE: Trump’s real power on the Hill, with House Republicans, has always been destructive in nature. He’s someone who blocks things from happening rather than someone who builds consensus. So far, Johnson hasn’t really brought up anything that Trump really cares about. But any vote on Ukraine aid will be a major test of this dynamic.

Many of Johnson’s members, particularly in the Freedom Caucus, are averse to voting for anything that can be signed into law by a Democratic president, so Johnson knows he will have to rely on Democrats to pass basic governance measures. At the same time, he has to make sure he’s right with the base, right with the Freedom Caucus and, of course, right with Trump.

JB: Is Johnson’s speakership really hanging in the balance?

CE: Every vote that the Freedom Caucus feels like they’ve been betrayed on just ratchets up the anger and the frustration a little bit more. I don’t anticipate this getting better for him.

If Greene calls a motion to vacate, the question becomes what Democrats will choose to do. We’ve seen a lot of Democrats openly weigh the idea of saving him if he puts a Ukraine package on the floor for a vote. But if he survives for that reason, it would cut the legs out from under him. He would be viewed as the speaker only because the opposition party decided to save him.

JB: Is there any sign that voters care about Congress being so dysfunctional?

CE: I would assume Republicans in swing districts have a lot of agitation over the fact that chaos dominates the headlines every day, and it’s laid at the feet of their party.

But if you talk to Democratic strategists about what their message is, I think it’s going to rely less on Republican chaos, and it will be more about Republican extremism, especially on abortion.

ON THE MAp

For President Biden, the simplest recipe for re-election might be this: Win Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and add a single electoral vote from Nebraska. That, plus other states that have gone blue in recent years, would get Biden to exactly 270 electoral votes, just enough to clinch a victory.

Nebraska is one of two states that allocate some of their electoral votes by congressional district, and the district containing Omaha went blue in 2020. (The other state that does this is Maine.) But after a push by the conservative media personality and activist Charlie Kirk, Gov. Jim Pillen, a Republican, says he is open to calling a special legislative session to convert the state to winner-take-all when there are sufficient votes to pass such a bill. Lawmakers there blocked a similar measure this month.

My colleague Astead Herndon, a friend of this newsletter and the host of the Times’s excellent politics podcast, “The Run-Up,” spoke with State Senator Merv Riepe, a Republican, as part of his episode about the matter, which you can listen to here.

Riepe supports switching to winner-take-all and told Astead that was because it was a “risk” to let Omaha remain a “blue dot” that could potentially tip an election. Here’s an edited excerpt from their conversation:

AH: What do you mean by risk? I get what you’re saying, that it does create the possibility that this one congressional district could back someone different than the state overall. But why is that necessarily all that bad?

MR: Well, Nebraska is a conservative state. If it makes a difference in who gets elected president, that’s an incredibly big difference.

AH: Why isn’t it just that the people of that district, you know, are having their voices heard?

MR: Let’s turn it on its heels. If you took it by district, California is not going to get all Democrats and leftists. So, same story here. The Omaha area is what I would call a very purple district. That one vote could swing the entire election. And if the other states aren’t going to play by the same rules, Nebraska shouldn’t either.

Reporter notebook

President Biden avoided a bruising primary fight, but his party is divided over the Gaza war and American support for Israel in the conflict. My colleagues Katie Glueck, Katie Benner and Sheera Frenkel took a deep look at the sprawling protest movement that reflects some of that angst. I asked Katie Glueck to tell us how it has grown.

Initially, the protest movement comprised organizations including campus groups, left-wing Jewish organizations and hard-line groups heavily involved in street protests, which in many cases blamed Israel for the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack on Israelis — a position broadly denounced at the time.

But as Israel’s military retaliation intensified and casualties in Gaza mounted, opposition to its war effort increasingly became a central tenet of the Democratic left in America, as a broad constellation of advocacy groups, activists and some voters pushed Biden to take a harder line against Israel.

“These are all groups that I would describe as part of the Democratic coalition,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat and Biden ally. “They helped President Biden win.”

Convincing those disillusioned, often younger, progressive voters to mobilize for Biden again will be one of his campaign’s central challenges this year.

Katie Glueck


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