Johnson stumbles, deepening Republican disarray and his own challenges

When one of the heaviest defeats of his short term came Tuesday, Speaker Mike Johnson placed himself front and center in the House chamber, standing in front of the speaker’s ceremonial chair on the upper level of the floor to lower it.

As Republicans hammered out their own bid to impeach Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the Homeland Security Secretary, Mr. Johnson, who minutes earlier had been holding buttons on the House floor, was the face of failure, a slightly panicked look on his face and his cheeks flushed when announced the loss.

The House then moved on to a second vote Mr. Johnson had orchestrated, on a $17.6 billion aid package for Israel that he knew would not get the votes he needed to pass.

And that didn’t work.

The back-to-back defeats underscored the range of problems Mr. Johnson inherited the day he was elected president and his inexperience in the position, roughly 100 days after he catapulted from the rank and file to the top House job. Burdened by a razor-thin margin of control and a deeply divided conference that repeatedly proved to be a majority in name only, he struggled to rein in his recalcitrant colleagues and made a series of decisions that only added to his own challenges.

Mr. Johnson was upbeat on Wednesday, painting the dysfunction that happened the night before as the kind of messy democratic process envisioned by the founding fathers.

“The job will be done and we will rule,” he told reporters right in front of the House. “This country is the greatest country in the history of the world. The whole world is counting on us. We have steady hands behind the wheel. We’ll get through it. Everyone take a deep breath. It’s a long game.”

But the next phase of that game could be even more challenging. In the coming days, Mr. Johnson is likely to face a decision on whether to initiate an aid package for Ukraine that is being considered in the Senate – a measure that many Republicans in the House of Representatives find unacceptable. And March 1 is the deadline to fund the government and avert a partial shutdown, a problem that Republican speakers have so far only been able to address with spending freeze bills passed by Democrats.

“When you’re handed the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, when you have a majority, there’s an expectation that you’re going to be able to govern, and we’ve just struggled with that over and over again,” said Representative Steve Womack, Republican of Arkansas.

The scene on the floor of the House of Representatives on Tuesday night caused widespread confusion among Republicans, who assumed that Mr. Johnson had gone ahead with the impeachment vote because he was confident he had the votes to pass it.

“I’ve played by every rule the party has made so we shouldn’t surprise them for a vote,” said Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, one of three Republicans who broke with the party to oppose the move. “We went ahead with the vote. We didn’t have to embarrass ourselves. We could have just waited until the math was different and moved forward.”

Republican leaders appeared to have miscalculated both the intensity of opposition to the measure among defectors and the number of Democrats who would be present to vote.

And then Rep. Al Green of Texas, a Democrat who missed earlier votes this week after undergoing abdominal surgery, took a surprise break from the hospital to cast the deciding vote condemning the measure.

“We have a razor-thin margin here and every vote counts,” Mr Johnson said on Wednesday. “Sometimes when you’re counting votes and people show up when they’re not expected to be in the building, that changes the equation.”

Mr Johnson spoke personally to some of the holdouts in what he described as “thoughtful, intellectual discussions” the morning after the vote. And minutes earlier, he had even buttonholed Mr Gallagher in the dressing room in an attempt to change his mind.

Mr. Gallagher was adamant.

“You’re affirming the principle that you can impeach a cabinet secretary for gross maladministration in the absence of a crime?” he said on “The Hugh Hewitt Show,” explaining his voice. “Let’s point a loaded gun at the next Trump administration.”

Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a notorious vote counter, couldn’t help but offer unsolicited advice to Mr. Johnson.

“You have to have your voices. Don’t worry about the other side – you have to have your own votes,” she said. “You know what most are. If you don’t have it — don’t throw it on the floor.”

Many Republicans acknowledge that Mr. Johnson is in a no-win position. His majority continues to shrink.

He continues to serve under terms negotiated by his predecessor, which allow one lawmaker to call an early vote to remove him — a mechanism that casts a shadow over the speaker even if no one actually initiates it.

And since he was catapulted to the top job nearly 10 months into this Congress, he doesn’t have any of the carrots or sticks that a speaker can usually offer at the start of a session to buy loyalty, such as plum committee assignments.

He angered some mainstream Republicans a few months ago when he floated an Israel aid bill paired with spending cuts — only to enrage the party’s right wing this week by advancing an Israel aid package without them.

Mr. Johnson tried to blame Democrats for the bill’s failure, calling it a “shameful” vote for the party at a time when the nation’s ally needed help. But he knew in advance that they would not accept the measure, which President Biden has threatened to veto and which Democratic leaders denounced as a cynical ploy to undermine aid to Ukraine. He also knew right-wing Republicans were opposed, prompting him to introduce the measure under special procedures that allow him to fast-track the measure to completion, but require a two-thirds majority to pass.

Representative Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., said that when Mr. Johnson initially introduced the Israel aid bill paired with spending cuts, the speaker was “breaking down multiple generations of what I call a bad road.”

“By passing that law last night, I think he took a step back,” said Mr. Biggs.

And that after the unsuccessful vote on impeachment.

“The argument would be, ‘You should have pulled him if you didn’t think we were going to win,'” said Rep. Kevin Hearn of Oklahoma, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “When you’re only one or two votes apart, you never know what’s going to happen.”

Mr Hearn predicted that Republicans would only “see more of this”.

“It’s very difficult,” he said. “The speaker emphasized that several times. We are operating in unprecedented times” with tight margins.

Representative Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky, went further, concluding that “President McCarthy’s solution has officially turned into an unmitigated disaster.”

“All work on separate spending accounts has ceased,” Mr Massie continued, in a social media post. “Cutting spending has been replaced by increasing spending. Warrantless spying has been temporarily extended. Our majority has shrunk.”

Kayla Guo and Luke Broadwater contributed to the reporting.

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