WASHINGTON ― House Republicans settled on Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) as their newest pick Tuesday night to be the next House speaker, crossing their collective fingers a Southern conservative will break the knot the selection process has become.
But while the newest speaker-designee, the fourth in three weeks, was confident he could prevail on the House floor Wednesday, it still remained uncertain whether he would have the votes, given some absences at the party meeting.
One Republican member told HuffPost there were three “present” votes and about 19 absences. Because of the slim majority held by House Republicans, they can only afford to lose four votes if all Democrats vote for someone else.
Johnson said his intention is to get the House working again, particularly on spending bills.
“You’re going to see this group working like a well-oiled machine. We owe that to the American people,” he said amid a crowd of cheering, if exhausted, House Republicans in a Capitol Hill meeting room where they have spent countless hours over the past few weeks considering who should lead them.
Johnson, a relatively unknown conservative outside of Republican circles, beat out five other candidates in a series of votes after coming in second in an earlier vote Tuesday that saw Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) win the party’s nomination.
But Emmer withdrew only a few hours later after he was unable to muster the 217 Republican votes needed to ensure a winning vote on the House floor. The same fate, which befell earlier nominees Steve Scalise (La.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio), could be in store for Johnson. A group of moderates and members of the Appropriations Committee joined forces to sink Jordan’s candidacy, and Johnson could face similar issues.
Johnson, an attorney, is in his fourth term in Congress and has served as the GOP conference’s vice chair. He is on the Judiciary and Armed Services committees.
While keeping something of a low profile, Johnson, whose legal specialty is constitutional law, has provided fodder for objectors to the 2020 presidential election. He was one of 37 lawmakers who signed a Jan, 6, 2021, letter that said, “In our unique system, Congress is positioned as the last bulwark in a presidential election to ensure the Constitution has been followed.”
Emmer’s experience showed the perils of the split in the conference. While moderates saw him as an ally, conservatives, egged on by former President Donald Trump, sank his hopes for winning the speaker’s gavel on the House floor.
“I have many wonderful friends wanting to be Speaker of the House, and some are truly great Warriors. RINO Tom Emmer, who I do not know well, is not one of them,” Trump posted on social media, using an acronym for “Republican in name only.”
“Voting for a Globalist RINO like Tom Emmer would be a tragic mistake!”
Rather than head to the House floor for another embarrassing public vote, Republicans stayed in their meeting room, where Emmer’s holdouts began to air their grievances.
It’s not clear how anyone could unite the House GOP.
The day started with eight candidates. The lowest-polling lawmaker dropped out after each round of voting. Emmer began the day with 78 votes on the first ballot, then gradually increased his tally as the number of contestants shrank. In the final vote, he had won against Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) by a vote of 117 to 97.
The House has ceased functioning as a legislative body since Republicans ousted Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from the speaker’s office earlier this month. Republicans have since rejected two possible replacements after they won internal votes but couldn’t garner the near-unanimity of the conference.
Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) told reporters Tuesday, “Look at the last two weeks. It seems like nobody can get to 217.”
The fundamental problem for Republicans is that a right-wing faction opposes any compromise with Democrats, even though bipartisan compromise is inevitable since Democrats control the Senate. Any speaker candidate who placates the hard-liners, such as Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), alienates moderates, who sank Jordan’s speaker bid last week.
But Republicans coming out of Tuesday night’s meeting put on a brave face, saying the absentees were unlikely to amount to enough votes against Johnson to deprive him of the speaker’s gavel.
“There’s a lot of unity here for Mike,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who is part of a hard-line group of conservatives and libertarians known as the House Freedom Caucus.
Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R-Fla.), who voted against Jordan on the House floor, also felt confident about Johnson’s chances.
“He’s a guy that everybody respects, everybody likes,” he said. “He is a man of deep faith, and people trust him.”
But another reason why Republicans hope he wins is pretty clear: They can’t imagine what they would do next after spending three weeks discarding two members of the current leadership and Jordan for the post, as well as laying bare some deep fissures within the conference.
Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) compared the process to getting rid of an army’s generals. “Then we went through our colonels, that also were all qualified. And now we’re floating around corporals,” he said before the last series of votes.
Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas) earlier in the day suggested Trump be named speaker to break the logjam. Otherwise, he said, Republicans would be back where they started from in the selection process.
“I mean, what are we going to do? Go down and just put everybody’s name in the damn hat?” he asked.