House Democrats did not initiate the no-confidence vote that toppled McCarthy on Oct. 3 — they were content to watch nine months of infighting, and often dysfunction, between him and the hard-liners who grudgingly gave him the gavel.
But they also did not bail him out when a handful of those conservatives voted to depose him. The decision prompted three weeks of turmoil ready-made for Democratic campaign ads as Republicans, in need of a replacement acceptable to the party’s right flank and institutionalists, cycled through nominees to no avail.
Yet the whole saga, finally resolved with Mike Johnson’s (R-LA) election as speaker on Wednesday, may actually redound to Republicans as Washington stares down twin battles over government funding and aid to Ukraine.
McCarthy entered October battered and bruised. He could only move spending bills in fits and starts. Conservatives were openly rebelling on the House floor.
He promised to extract spending cuts from Democrats, who control the White House and Senate, in a fight to keep the government open past Sept. 30, but the conservatives demanding those cuts were so suspect of his leadership that even a hard-right funding extension failed to attract the necessary support.
In the end, McCarthy acquiesced to Democrats, passing 45 days of funding with no strings attached, a move that precipitated his downfall and Johnson’s ascent to the speakership.
Had Republicans kept McCarthy in his post — eight hard-liners voted to remove him, but most were not prepared to do so — he might have been able to get to the negotiating table for a yearlong spending deal. Yet such an outcome was far from guaranteed.
House Republicans had only passed four of their 12 annual spending bills by the time of his ouster, in part because conservatives repeatedly tanked procedural votes on those bills as a form of protest.
The same intransigence that denied McCarthy leverage in one fight would likely have persisted to the next. Johnson’s election changes that.
Republicans have in Johnson a man unscathed by the turbulence. He’s well-liked, as McCarthy still is by most of his conference, but also trusted by the same rabble-rousers who deposed McCarthy.
Hard-liners viewed McCarthy as a political chameleon who needed to be put in a “straight-jacket” to become speaker. He brokered, in effect, a power-sharing agreement with them and governed knowing he was one wrong move away from being booted from the job.
Johnson, by contrast, is cut from the same cloth as conservatives. The Freedom Caucus had wanted Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH) to hold the gavel but got a close second in Johnson. He’s more genteel than firebrand but aligns closely with hard-liners on both fiscal and social issues.
The Freedom Caucus, for now, does not feel the need to hold his feet to the fire the way it did for McCarthy, meaning Johnson will be given latitude in coming fights. That affords him control of his conference and a stronger position at the negotiating table with Democrats.
“We’re in overtime right now, so you don’t blame the backup quarterback for the failures of the guy that just came out of the game,” said Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry (R-PA), who predicted his members will be more willing to pass a short-term funding extension with Johnson at the helm.
What’s more, the House might be done ushering its appropriations bills across the floor before government funding runs out on Nov. 17.
The House already passed its fifth on Thursday with zero drama, an amazing spectacle for a press corp used to watching the bills go down in flames. Johnson has laid out an aggressive schedule to pass the remaining seven.
If he can do so — a provision on abortion pills is holding up the food and agriculture bill — he will have an opening offer to present to Democrats, further strengthening his hand. Meanwhile, the Senate has yet to pass a single appropriations bill.
Admittedly, Johnson is inexperienced in the role. He went from freshman to speaker in just four terms and will square up with a president who spent decades cutting deals in the Senate.
But Johnson, both as a matter of ideological conviction and self-preservation, may drive a harder bargain than McCarthy would or could have.
That spells trouble for Democrats. The party wants another “clean” funding bill to allow more time for negotiations, likely until December, and President Joe Biden is requesting a $106 billion supplemental that would, among other things, provide military aid to Israel and Ukraine.
Johnson, meanwhile, wants conditions on that aid and will pursue border policy changes and spending cuts to greenlight the funding. An extension that butts up against the Christmas recess is a nonstarter.
Democrats blinked in a fight over the debt ceiling in the spring, coming to the negotiating table despite an earlier refusal to do so. McCarthy, at the time tolerated by the Freedom Caucus, walked away with a two-year spending freeze that, while a disappointment to conservatives, might have been the best he could get in divided government.
Democrats may again have to relent to keep the government open and support the war in Ukraine. But the coming battle would have been stacked more in their favor had McCarthy stayed speaker.
Some concessions may be more palatable than others. Biden has asked for $14 billion in border funding, reflecting a rightward shift in his stance on immigration, and might acquiesce to policy changes demanded by Johnson.
Others may simply be politically necessary. While both parties overwhelmingly support aid to Ukraine, enough Republicans in both chambers want more oversight that the White House will have to accommodate. The same can be said of Johnson’s plan to consider Ukraine and Israel aid separately. (Right now, it’s rolled into one big package.)
But the real test is how much Johnson can extract in spending cuts beyond those agreed to in the debt ceiling fight. Democrats have already, in no uncertain terms, said that amount is zero.
“We have never given in to any Republican extreme ransom demand in the context of a potential government shutdown. We never will,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) said on Thursday. “It’s a futile effort. And it’s just designed to hurt the American people and extract pain.”
Working in their favor is the fact that Senate Republicans, too, want to abide by the debt ceiling agreement. But Democrats may be forced to give some ground if Johnson can keep his conference united.
That’s not a given. Swing-district Republicans are already needling the speaker on everything from Rep. George Santos’s (R-NY) expulsion to the abortion rider holding up the agriculture bill.
But when push comes to shove, centrists, who place a higher premium on governance than the Freedom Caucus, may very well fall in line, as they did in the spring.
“I think he’s got a lot more credibility than honestly more senior members do, and that’s just because, hey, politics is like the fight business — the longer you’re in it, the more you get beat up,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), the chairman of the Rules Committee, said of Johnson. “And, you know, there’s some punches you can take early in your career that you can’t take later. And I think he’s at the right point to be able to actually handle difficult things and still maintain the political competence he needs to function effectively.”
All 212 House Democrats voted to remove McCarthy, a calculation that furthered their goal of painting Republicans as dysfunctional and extreme. The move could pay dividends, dethroning a prolific fundraiser months before an election in which Democrats need to net just five seats to retake the House.
But what may have been politically advantageous could become a policy setback as Johnson navigates his first major test as speaker.