Conservative outrage over the top-line spending deal negotiated by Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is fueling speculation over whether he could meet the same fate as his predecessor and have his gavel yanked away.
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) explicitly left open the possibility of forcing a vote on removing the Speaker, known as a “motion to vacate,” over the weekend spending deal.
“If they totally botch it, we get no policy reforms, and we spend $1.66 trillion, I don’t know why we would keep him as Speaker,” Roy told conservative podcast host Steve Deace on Tuesday.
“I’m leaving it on the table. I’m not going to say I’m going to file it tomorrow,” Roy continued. “I think the Speaker needs to know that we’re angry about it.”
The top-line spending deal is largely in line with the spending caps and side-spending agreement struck as part of the debt limit deal negotiated by ousted former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) last year — which fueled a full-on rebellion by hard-line conservatives.
Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) addresses reporters as he returns to his office from a series of procedural votes and meetings to discuss funding the government on Thursday, January 11, 2024. (Greg Nash)
Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), one of the eight Republicans who joined with Democrats to vote McCarthy out, said “a lot of people are talking about” a move to oust Johnson, but he is not on board — “yet.”
“I’d say just give him a little time, but we’re running out of time,” Burchett said.
With House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) out until next month due to cancer treatment, it would take only three Republicans and all Democrats to force Johnson’s removal, assuming full attendance otherwise.
But that same razor-thin majority, Johnson argues, is why Republicans have limited options for wins from the Democratic-controlled Senate and Biden administration. He’s called the spending deal the “best possible deal” conservatives could get with a divided government. He has touted wins on accelerating clawbacks of IRS funding and a $6.1 billion cut to pandemic funding.
Johnson is “not concerned” about a move to force him out over the spending deal, he said at a Wednesday press conference.
“Chip Roy is one of my closest friends. We agree on almost everything in principle,” Johnson said. “Look, leadership is tough. You take a lot of criticism. But remember, I am a hard-line conservative. That’s what they used to call me.”
Many Republicans don’t take seriously the talk of ousting Johnson.
“People are emotional all the time,” House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) said when asked about the possibility. “They say all kinds of different things.”
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So far, no GOP members have explicitly called to oust Johnson. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), another one of the eight who moved against McCarthy, said he would prefer the House GOP work out its outrage without the motion to vacate.
McCarthy had long maintained the move to unseat him was largely motivated by personal beefs, though the Republicans who ousted him denied that.
The refusal of some hard-liners to take the option off the table is also in line with their overall tactical theory that the most extreme consequence — a government shutdown, for instance — should never be completely ruled out.
Still, notable voices are decrying the idea.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who has been much colder to Johnson than she was toward McCarthy, called a motion to vacate the “dumbest thing that could happen” — saying the last one threw the House GOP into “utter chaos.”
There is also hope among Republicans that even if there were a move against Johnson, exasperation with the drama would keep Democrats from backing a motion to vacate.
“I think Democrats are as fed up with this as we are, and I think I’d be very surprised if you would see Democrats lock arms and join with nonsensical Republicans in vacating the chair,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.).
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) attempts to show information from Hunter Biden’s laptop as the House Oversight Committee considers a resolution on Jan. 10, 2024 to hold Hunter Biden in contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena last month. (Greg Nash)
That may be wishful thinking.
Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) said he’s built a close relationship with Johnson based on a shared devotion to religious faith. But he said he wouldn’t hesitate to support Johnson’s removal from the Speakership.
“Oh, we’d vote to vacate the chair — I think uniformly — because we disagree on everything,” Vargas said. “You can’t vote for somebody you disagree with. I think we’d all vote against him for that reason alone.”
Other Democrats suggest they would step in to save Johnson — if he were willing to work with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) on some sort of arrangement empowering Democrats with more influence over legislation. Some of those Democrats had urged McCarthy to do just that, and when he refused, they voted to oust him.
“Just like I told McCarthy: Talk to Hakeem, and there are some of us that can support you,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a centrist Blue Dog Democrat. “I’ll say the same thing [to Johnson].”
A forced exit is far from the only complicating factor for Johnson as he aims to wrangle control of the unruly slim majority.
A group of mostly Freedom Caucus members were in open rebellion on the House floor Wednesday as they tanked a procedural vote in protest of the spending levels. It was an escalation of a move the members executed in the past to block spending bills they opposed — this time blocking votes on three unrelated measures, yanking away Johnson’s control of the House floor.
And even if he does not have to fight for his job now, it certainly does not help Johnson now or in the future to have GOP members openly criticizing him.
Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) was irate as he left a House GOP conference meeting Wednesday morning where Johnson presented the spending deal, saying he would not listen to that “drivel.”
“Before we could even get together, he announced the terms of the surrender,” Davidson said.
Asked if Johnson should be fired, Davidson, who had supported McCarthy, said: “He should have never been hired.”
Mike Lillis contributed.
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