Speaker Mike Johnson cleared a shutdown hurdle but isn't in the clear yet

By relying heavily on Democrats' help to pass his government funding plan, has the Republican speaker given himself an even bigger problem down the line?

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., conducts a news conference in the U.S. Capitol with family members of hostages taken by Hamas during the October 7th attack on Israel, on Tuesday, November 7, 2023.
Although Johnson has been given more leeway than McCarthy, that honeymoon may be coming to an end
(Image credit: Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

When Louisiana Republican Rep. Mike Johnson was elected speaker of the House three weeks ago, ostensibly ending the internal GOP strife that had ground the wheels of government to a halt in the wake of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy's (R-Calif.) ousting, the prevailing question at the time wasn't so much how the relatively untested Johnson would govern as it was whether he could govern at all. Now, nearly a month later, we have the beginnings of an answer. 

On Tuesday evening, the House decisively passed a contentious spending bill to avert this coming weekend's looming government shutdown, funding a fifth of the federal budget through mid-January, and the remaining majority through early February. This "laddered" approach, dismissed as "goofy" by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) despite his being "cautiously" heartened by the bill's passage, is a significant victory for Johnson, signaling that he can indeed shepherd major pieces of legislation through his fractious chamber. At the same time, the fact that 93 of the 95 votes against the spending bill came from members of his own party suggests that a deeply divided Republican party with its barely-there House majority may not be quite so willingly shepherded by Johnson after all. 

While Johnson eagerly takes a public victory lap after Tuesday night's vote, claiming in a statement that the bill "puts House Republicans in the best position to fight for conservative policy victories," not everyone is quite so sure that it will be smooth sailing for this still-green speaker from here on out. 

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'Dangerous territory for a GOP speaker'

Comparing Johnson's win to that of his predecessor Kevin McCarthy, Punchbowl's Jake Sherman warned on X, formerly Twitter, that because "Democrats saved him," Johnson is now in "dangerous territory for a GOP speaker." Not only is this the same dynamic that ultimately contributed to McCarthy's ousting, but there is "no evidence" that Republicans are now in a better bargaining position ahead of the next funding fight in just 21 legislative days. 

Johnson's reliance on Democratic votes to pass the spending bill differs from McCarthy's in one major way, according to Politico: "Unlike his predecessor, it won't cost him the job." That doesn't mean, however, that Johnson should expect his caucus to roll over on his behalf. Instead, Johnson's refusal to "take a hard line" with his bill has some conservatives — with whom he is largely in ideological agreement — "privately entertaining other ways to retaliate," including "holding the House floor hostage by tanking procedural votes." 

In a brief statement on Tuesday, the far-right House Freedom Caucus promised that "while we remain committed to working with Speaker Johnson, we need bold change" — an ominous, "first hint of a warning" that although Johnson has been given more leeway than McCarthy, that honeymoon may be coming to an end, The Atlantic reported. Having already "used up one of his free passes," Johnson now faces a packed legislative schedule even as it's unclear "how many more he’ll get." 

Johnson himself gave no hints of any worry over the fault lines within his own party after Tuesday's vote, telling reporters simply "you'll see" when asked how he'll unify Republicans moving forward — a sign that he remains in a "honeymoon period" with his caucus, NBC News' Julie Tsirkin explained, even if more Republicans voted against this latest bill than its September counterpart that led to McCarthy's ousting. 

'He's not in it just for the fight'

The fact that Johnson was able to avert this weekend's shutdown shows he "might be a more skillful and pragmatic leader than many thought possible," The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty countered. Acknowledging that it's "faint praise, given how low the expectations were," Johnson's ability to simply keep the government open and functioning while "nudg[ing] the appropriations committees of both houses to get back to doing their jobs" is an "admirable" goal that has impressed skeptics from within his own party. Johnson's "not in it just for the fight," one Republican congressman explained to Tumulty. "He’s actually for moving things."

While not a particularly high bar for success in and of itself, given where the House has been for the year, it's still, ultimately, a win. 

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