The infighting began even before Republicans assumed the House majority, as hard-liners opposed and then grudgingly allowed McCarthy to become speaker in January, only to boot him from the job nine months later. But the chaos that ensued has deepened that rift as whisper campaigns and power plays forced the conference to cycle through three speaker nominees in three weeks.
Their fourth nominee, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA), could unite the conference when the chamber holds a floor vote shortly after noon on Wednesday. No members voted against him in a roll call vote held after he clinched the nomination.
“He’s done what no one has been able to do before, and that’s unify and consolidate the conference, and that’s why he’s going to be the speaker of the House tomorrow,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), who opposed the short-lived candidacy of House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN).
Yet Johnson’s ascent to the speakership is not a guarantee. Three voted “present” in the conference vote, while another 20 or so were absent, making them wild cards heading into Wednesday. In a chamber Republicans control by a paper-thin majority, the opposition of even a few members could tank his candidacy.
Republicans have projected false confidence before. Emmer predicted in no uncertain terms that Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, would become speaker days before the conference withdrew his nomination. A note of optimism from rank-and-file members similarly preceded Emmer’s own failed bid.
In each case, and that of House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA), a small group of Republicans succeeded in blocking them from the gavel.
The expectation-setting felt different on Tuesday night, however, as the conference invited reporters into the Ways and Means Committee room where the party had spent the better part of 13 hours vetting more than ten candidates for speaker.
There, Johnson stood in front of the podium flanked by Republicans spanning the ideological spectrum, including members of leadership.
“Democracy is messy sometimes, but it is our system,” said Johnson in his first remarks as the speaker designate. “This conference that you see, this House Republican majority, is united.”
The removal of McCarthy’s nameplate in front of the speaker’s office on Tuesday night added to the sense of inevitability.
Three weeks ago, few would have predicted that Johnson would be the man to bridge a festering divide between institutionalists and the party’s right flank. Despite his role in leadership — he became vice chairman of the House Republican Conference in 2021 — Johnson is a lesser-known congressman serving his fourth term in Congress.
But he’s also a staunch conservative, key to satisfying the Freedom Caucus, who has not made the sort of enemies who torpedoed other candidates’ bids.
“Everybody likes the guy,” said Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL), who helped block Jordan on the House floor. “There’s nothing negative about him in my mind. Nobody’s perfect. But he’s pretty close.”
Johnson’s relative inexperience has raised questions about his readiness for a job that includes fundraising to keep a House majority. But Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-TX), the Budget Committee chairman who nominated him on Tuesday night, said that may ultimately have been what was necessary given the mood of the conference.
“I just think this conference wants a new person, a new start, a new direction, a new business model that is bottom up, not top down,” he said. “They did not want the old.”
The time it took to get there left the conference exasperated and, at times, bitterly divided, with sabotage and grudge-holding on full display, but members described the party as better for having gone through the process.
“You go through difficult times together, a painful process together, and you have the potential to come out of something like that stronger, healthier, closer,” said Rep. Bob Good (R-VA), one of eight Republicans to depose McCarthy earlier this month.
“He’s the right man for the right time for the right reasons,” Good added, calling Johnson a “reconciler” who could bring together the conference’s various factions.
It’s not surprising that hard-liners supported his candidacy. As a one-time chairman of the Republican Study Committee, Johnson is a through-and-through conservative.
But he’s also won the backing of centrists such as Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY), who cited a desire to govern after three weeks without a speaker but also appreciated Johnson’s temperament.
A Johnson speakership would not be without tensions. The conference is personality-driven, and McCarthy loyalists still fume over his removal from leadership. On matters of policy, Johnson would be forced to compromise with Democrats, a political reality anathema to House conservatives. The party also remains split on aid for Ukraine.
Yet Johnson would have leeway with the Freedom Caucus where McCarthy did not. Whereas its members viewed the ex-speaker’s September continuing resolution as a ploy for an omnibus, Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), the caucus chairman, would be willing to pass one under Johnson, confident that he has their priorities at heart.
“It’s a different situation now,” Perry said. “There was a trust factor with leadership last time. I think you’re going to see a different viewpoint now.”
Arrington, meanwhile, suggested there will be more cohesion in the leadership team given that Johnson and Scalise, the No. 2 Republican in the House, both represent Louisiana.
“Here’s the good news. They’re great friends, and there’s tremendous trust between the two, and that’s gonna only make things run more smoothly as we launch back into doing the people’s business,” he said, hinting at long-running tensions between McCarthy and Scalise.
That business has been at a standstill without a speaker. The interim leader, Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry (R-NC), has limited powers as the position’s caretaker.
Johnson’s election would mean the chamber could jump-start the appropriations process, including a stopgap bill to fund the government past Nov. 17.