Analysis: New House Speaker Johnson caught up in ‘whirlwind’

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., talks with reporters ahead of the debate and vote on supplemental aid to Israel, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
For all the latest developments in Congress, follow WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller at Today on the Hill.

House Speaker Mike Johnson hasn’t had much time to adjust to the demands of his new leadership post, amid war in the Middle East, a fast-approaching government shutdown deadline and unabating feuds within his Republican conference.

But he’s had a relatively solid start, notching a legislative victory this week with approval of nearly $14.5 billion in aid for Israel, even if the legislation will hit a wall in the Senate.

During his first news conference, he was asked what it’s been like to quickly ascend to one of the most politically challenging jobs in Washington.

“Well, I’m from Louisiana so I describe everything in either football or hurricane metaphors,” he said. “Let me say this is like an F5 hurricane. It’s been a whirlwind, but in a great way.”

Technically, it would be a Category 5 hurricane, while an F5 is the most powerful tornado.

But the point is understood.

Johnson is clearly dealing with a lot, after getting elected House Speaker last week, following a tumultuous three weeks in which Republicans seemed unable to agree on a new leader.

He noted he’s already spoken to or met with several foreign leaders. He spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last weekend, to express U.S. support in the war against Hamas.

Johnson said this week that he opposes calls for a cease-fire, pointing to the ruthless nature of the Hamas attack on Israel.

While Republicans’ approval of aid for Israel won’t go anywhere in the Senate, it does provide Johnson with a bit of leverage as an intense debate gets underway over aid for Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and the southern border.

President Joe Biden has requested $105 billion in a supplemental package that the Senate will rework, in the hope that it can become legislation passed by the upper chamber, as well as the House.

Johnson was criticized by Democrats for including a cut of more than $14 billion to the IRS, as part of the Israeli aid bill, to show Republicans’ commitment to reining in federal spending.

But the Congressional Budget Office released an estimate stating that the IRS reductions could actually cause the federal deficit to balloon by $12.5 billion.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., called it a “gotcha bill,” suggesting the IRS provision was included to score political points.

Democrats are also upset that the legislation didn’t have any aid for Ukraine, which is supported by many Senate Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Johnson has indicated he would be open to including Ukraine aid in a supplemental package, as long as it beefed up enforcement and resources for the southern border.

He is also trying to navigate his way through his unwieldy GOP conference on how to avoid a government shutdown.

The deadline of Nov. 17 is only two weeks away.

“There’s a growing recognition that we’re going to need another stopgap spending measure,” he said.

Johnson has said he would like a continuing resolution to extend through Jan. 15.

But some of the most conservative Republicans remain opposed to a short-term spending measure.

Johnson said he has listened to an idea reportedly put forth by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., which would take what he called a “laddered” approach to spending bills.

The idea hasn’t been fully fleshed out, but it would apparently allow for funding of various parts of the government according to what spending has been approved.

But skeptics, including Democrats, suggested such an approach could create the possibility of more rolling shutdown deadlines than there are now.

Still, the fact that Johnson mentioned it, indicates he is trying to listen to all the ideas put forth by his conference.

Republicans, despite their calls for unity, still have plenty of differences. And they aren’t just over government spending.

New York Republicans this week sought to expel fellow Republican Rep. George Santos, for his lifetime of lies and due the fact that he now faces 23 felony counts related to fraud.

The vote fell short and Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., later joked on “X” that, “Last night the House saw its shadow. Unfortunately, this means there be two more weeks of Santos.”

Santos then also posted on the social media site, criticizing Womack and linking to a story about a drug conviction involving Womack’s adult son.

Santos later apologized.

Other GOP lawmakers also feuded on the X platform (formerly Twitter) over various issues.

Johnson hopes to rise above the political whirlwind.

But it won’t be easy with a conference that includes Republicans, who ousted his predecessor Kevin McCarthy last month because he sought to avoid a government shutdown with the help of Democrats.

Mitchell Miller

Mitchell Miller has worked at WTOP since 1996, as a producer, editor, reporter and Senior News Director. After working "behind the scenes," coordinating coverage and reporter coverage for years, Mitchell moved back to his first love -- reporting. He is now WTOP's Capitol Hill reporter.

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