Mike Johnson’s Big Problem: House Republicans Lack a Governing Majority

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Republicans may control the House, but when it comes to enacting any significant measure this Congress, it has fallen to Democrats to supply the bulk of the votes.

When Speaker Mike Johnson pushed through a stopgap spending bill on Thursday to avert a partial government shutdown, it was the fourth time over the past year that a Republican speaker, facing opposition from his right flank, has had to rely on Democratic votes to push through legislation needed to head off a calamity.

It was the latest sign of a punishing dynamic Mr. Johnson inherited when he won the speakership in the fall. With a minuscule and shrinking majority, a restive right wing willing to defect on major issues, and a Democratic Senate and president, Mr. Johnson is presiding over a House majority in name only — not a governing majority — sapping his leverage.

And his hold on that majority is tenuous at best.

Moments before the temporary spending bill passed on Thursday, it appeared Mr. Johnson might fall just short of mustering the support of a majority of his majority — long the informal but sacrosanct standard for determining what legislation a G.O.P. speaker would put to a vote. It was only at the last second that one Republican lawmaker appeared to switch from “no” to “yes,” pushing him just over the threshold. One hundred and seven Republicans voted for the stopgap bill and 106 opposed it, with Democrats supplying most of the votes — 207 — to push through the bill.

Leaning on such a coalition became a well-worn play for Kevin McCarthy, the former speaker, who used it in May to pull the nation back from the brink of its first default, and again in September to avoid a shutdown.

Stuck between a government shutdown and using the same tactic as his ousted predecessor, Mr. Johnson now has twice followed Mr. McCarthy’s lead to keep the government funded. It is a move that has infuriated hard-right Republicans, who had crowed at the beginning of the year that the party’s thin margin would force the speaker into a coalition government with them. Instead, it has driven two consecutive G.O.P. speakers into the arms of Democrats.

“I think it’s a loss to the American people to join hands with Democrats — form a governing coalition to do what Schumer and the Senate want to do,” Representative Bob Good of Virginia, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said on Thursday. “We’re doing that once again today. I think that’s a failure.”

Yet Mr. Good and the other ultraconservatives who deposed Mr. McCarthy in October have said they are prepared to extend Mr. Johnson more latitude than they ever gave the California Republican. Both privately and publicly, hard-liners say they trust Mr. Johnson to tell them the truth — even if they do not like it — in a way they never believed Mr. McCarthy would. And they have found solace in his evangelical Christian roots and long history as an ultraconservative activist.

Last week Mr. Good called it “a ridiculous supposition” that “the leader of our party for two and a half months would be treated the same as someone who was in that position for years.”

For his part, Mr. Johnson — who frequently reminds reporters who ask him about criticism from right-wing lawmakers that he considers himself one of them — has said he has been making strides on difficult terrain.

“Everyone understands the reality of where we are,” Mr. Johnson said at a news conference this week. “House Republicans have the second-smallest majority in history.” He added: “We’re not going to get everything that we want. But we are going to stick to core conservative principles. We’re going to advance fiscal stewardship. I regard this as a down payment on real reform.”

That does not mean he expects an easy ride.

On several occasions since Republicans took control of the House, the speaker has had to rely on Democrats to even bring legislation to the House floor because conservative rebels have routinely broken with tradition and opposed the procedural measures that allow a bill to be considered.

Mr. Johnson has been forced to bring up both stopgap spending bills to avert a shutdown to the floor under a special protocol that requires a supermajority of the House for passage.

Some ultraconservative Republicans suggested on Thursday that they might restart their blockade in the aftermath of the stopgap bill.

“Johnson’s inherited a mess,” said Representative Steve Womack, Republican of Arkansas and a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. “He’s our coach right now. And he’s calling the best plays he can given the circumstances and the headwinds he faces. Doing the very best he can. And it should be our collective, shared responsibility to make him successful. And we are not doing that.”

Democrats have been more than happy, particularly in an election year, to underscore their willingness to salvage the bills to keep the government open. Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, has for months repeatedly reminded the speaker from the Senate floor that any legislation to be signed into law must be bipartisan.

And Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democratic leader, often takes the opportunity to describe how Democrats have been at the forefront of such efforts “because of the chaos, dysfunction and extremism on the other side of the aisle.”

“They are built to be in the minority,” said Representative Brendan F. Boyle of Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee. “They are built to always say no, they’re built to always obstruct, and the only way you can pass meaningful things around here such as keeping the government funded or raising the debt ceiling is with Democratic votes.”

Annie Karni and Carl Hulse contributed reporting.

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Mike Johnson’s Big Problem: House Republicans Lack a Governing Majority

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