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 GOP House speaker to require Democratic help to keep Washington running.
In a 336-95 vote, the House approved legislation that will delay a government shutdown until next year. Democrats provided more than half of the votes for the plan, which just 127 Republicans supported.
Just two California Republicans declined to back the proposal: Tom McClintock of Elk Grove and Jay Obernolte of Big Bear Lake. Democratic Reps. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Kevin Mullin of South San Francisco did not vote.
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.
“The passage of today’s continuing resolution puts House Republicans in the best position to fight for conservative policy victories,” Johnson said in a statement.
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 proposal staggers the extensions. Funding for some departments Republicans traditionally want to cut — Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education — would lapse on Jan. 19, and the rest of the extensions, including ones that fund traditionally noncontroversial agencies, such as the military, would lapse on Feb. 2.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had 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 plan, complaining it did not cut spending or bolster border security.
“While we remain committed to working with Speaker Johnson, we need bold change,” the caucus said in an unsigned statement.
Before the vote, Johnson said his sympathies were with the far-right caucus. “I want to cut spending right now,” he 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 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 said. Because of that, “no matter how much McCarthy bent over backwards to accommodate a lunatic fringe, there’s going to be someone who didn’t like him,” Ornstein said.
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 archconservatives 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 said. 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,” Ornstein said. “I don’t think Johnson has the cushion for another clean [extension] that he’ll be able to get away with it.”