Mike Johnson faces a McCarthy-esque test as a shutdown looms. Will he survive?

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson at a GOP press conference  (Getty Images)
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson at a GOP press conference (Getty Images)

Mike Johnson’s big test is here.

Congress faces a deadline of 17 November to pass a budget measure to keep paychecks to federal employees flowing and ensure that parts of the government remain operational. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Legislative Branch was in the exact same position just weeks ago, and found itself utterly paralysed without the ability to pass anything more than a short-term funding extension to get us to this point. Even that proved to be so odious to House conservatives that it cost Kevin McCarthy his role in leadership, ending his long-sought speakership less than a year into the job.

Now, the new Speaker of the House heads into the week before Thanksgiving with two familiar questions burning before him: will the US government shut down? And will Mike Johnson still be Speaker when this is over?

The answer to both, of course, is up in the air. Despite hand-wringing from moderates in the wake of Kevin McCarthy’s ouster last month, the motion to vacate threshold remains so low in the House that just a handful of GOP rebels could cause a big problem for Mr Johnson.

If you listen to Mr McCarthy, the risk to his successor’s career is low. Speaking with CNN’s Manu Raju for an interview that aired over the weekend, the ex-Speaker predicted that Mr Johnson’s “honeymoon” period would get him through the immediate crisis.

But that confidence should sound familiar too. It harkens back to the bluster that Mr McCarthy projected in the days leading up to his removal as House Speaker, when he confidently chuckled “I’ll survive” after being asked whether Matt Gaetz and the GOP rebels had enough votes to oust him. And if one were to listen to the former Speaker’s reasoning for this surety now, it hinges on his faith in two matters: that Republicans will fall in line, and Democrats will back down and save the GOP majority if conservatives seek to throw out the Speaker again.

Well, at least we don’t have any recent historical evidence to suggest otherwise.

Kidding aside, let’s take a look at the possible outcomes of the weeks ahead:

Mike Johnson gets his honeymoon

The Speaker unveiled a “two-tiered approach” to avert a shutdown on Saturday, pushing various parts of the government funding discussion through the holiday season into the new year. Mr Johnson hopes that the extra time will allow lawmakers to better discuss and drum up support for their budget proposals before passing them next year; the Speaker declared that it would avoid a “messy” fight during the holidays while allowing the caucus to work on individual long-term budget resolutions for government agencies.

With that gained time, he is promising in exchange to push for a one-year extension to government funding next year, an extension that would come with as high as 8 per cent cuts to non-defence spending.

“This two-step continuing resolution is a necessary bill to place House Republicans in the best position to fight for conservative victories,” he said in a statement.

Republicans still hold a majority, albeit a slim one, in the lower chamber and could theoretically pass this legislation in the coming days. The current bills are “clean” — devoid of any cuts to agency or program funding — and therefore could potentially pick up support from Democrats in the House and Senate for passage. It’s basically a slightly longer version of the extension that Republicans passed last month, which of course raises its own set of issues.

But assuming for the sake of argument that Mr McCarthy is right about his party falling into line for the new Speaker’s “honeymoon”, this plan would kick the can down the road for another two months — while giving Mr Johnson some much-needed breathing room.

A Republican revolt

If one were to look at this situation purely on the merits, it is difficult to predict any other result in the days ahead besides imminent problems for Mike Johnson.

His approach is, for all intents and purposes, very similar to Kevin McCarthy’s. Like Mr McCarthy, he is pushing a pair of clean funding bills to the floor, in the hopes that conservatives who refuse to support any budget that does not include funding cuts will vote for it on the promise that those funding cuts will be implemented in the actual budget legislation planned for next year. And there’s something to be said for trying the same thing multiple times, expecting different outcomes.

Already there are signs that conservatives in his party are not on board with this. Just ask Chip Roy, who tweeted on Saturday: “My opposition to the clean [continuing resolution] just announced by the Speaker to the @HouseGOP cannot be overstated.” Two others, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Warren Davidson, also oppose the Speaker’s resolution.

By the looks of it, Mr Johnson can only afford a few more defections before he will need to rely on Democrats to avert a shutdown. Doing so would essentially be daring the Republicans who ousted Mr McCarthy to try again. The only real protection for Mr Johnson would be the potential political consequences that his far-right colleagues could face for ousting two Speakers in as many months; consequences which they very well may be willing to risk.

A question of personalities

The real issue at hand may not be the funding legislation at all, but rather the Speaker’s ability to develop trust within his caucus.

When Republican holdouts who supported Mr McCarthy’s removal spoke to reporters in October, one theme was reoccurring in every statement: a lack of trust in the House GOP leader. Fiscal hawks had no faith in House Republican leaders to push for the passage of actual long-term budget legislation. Tim Burchett claimed that the Speaker had mocked his faith. Nancy Mace blamed Mr McCarthy for not advancing sexual assault legislation after he had promised to do so.

If Mr Johnson wants to survive the weeks ahead, see the government shutdown averted and budget legislation passed in the new year, it will take a monumental buildup of trust within the GOP caucus that frankly does not exist quite yet. He will need some of the least-trusting members of his caucus, already cynical about the promises of GOP leaders, to support him on credit long enough to deliver on those same promises — a tall order for a newcomer to leadership who has never even chaired a committee, let alone led his polarised caucus through crisis.

And on the personality issue, all eyes are once again turning to Matt Gaetz, who drew praise from Trump supporters and hardline conservatives for his war with Mr McCarthy while earning the ire of the GOP establishment and some derision for claiming the spotlight. Unlike some other conservatives, Mr Gaetz has not publicly let on how he feels about the clean resolution being put forward by leadership; his Twitter timelines over the weekend remained consumed with promotion for a documentary glamourising his crusade to kick Mr McCarthy out of a job.

There are many questions remaining about how this will all play out in the days ahead. If Mr Johnson is unable to quell the same rebellious sentiments that Mr McCarthy faced, he may be out of a job sooner rather than later.

And that would put the House GOP in truly strange territory. Mr Johnson only ascended to his role after a succession of Republicans tried and failed to win the Speaker’s gavel before him; should he fail here, who’s next?