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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As speaker, Johnson advances what he once opposed, enraging the right

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) at a weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, on March 20, 2024. Now that he is the leader, the Louisiana Republican has found himself bowing to governing realities that are now his problem. (Haiyun Jiang/ The New York Times)

By Catie Edmondson

As a low-profile, rank-and-file congressman representing his deeply red district, Rep. Mike Johnson took the positions of a hard-liner.

He repeatedly voted down efforts to send aid to Ukraine, citing insufficient oversight of where the money would go. He opposed the stopgap funding bill that then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy put on the House floor in efforts to avert a government shutdown. He supported a sweeping overhaul favored by libertarians to the law that undergirds a warrantless surveillance program that is reviled by right-wing lawmakers who distrust federal law enforcement.

But now that he is Speaker Johnson, he has changed his tune considerably, much to the chagrin and outrage of the right-wing lawmakers with whom he once found common cause.

After months of refusing to bring up a bill to send a fresh infusion of aid to Ukraine, Johnson is now searching for a way to advance it, having privately pledged that the Congress would “do our job.” Despite a vow in the fall never to pass another stopgap funding bill to keep the government open, he put forward several to allow more time to negotiate funding agreements with Democrats that were opposed by many of his members. And later this week, the speaker plans to put to a vote a bill making more modest changes to the surveillance program, over the objections of hard-right lawmakers and activists who have sought to place strict limits on it.

“House Judiciary Committee Member Mike Johnson has a bone to pick with Speaker of the House Mike Johnson,” Adam Brandon, the president of FreedomWorks, a center-right advocacy group, said in a statement decrying his reversal on the intelligence bill.

As a steward of the federal government — his post is second in line to the presidency — and wrangler of his party’s slim majority, Johnson has lately found himself embracing bills he once opposed in order to meet the basic demands of governing and often pushing them through with Democratic votes.

The dynamic was on vivid display as lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Tuesday from their Easter recess, and Johnson — saddled with an ever-shrinking majority and a deeply divided conference — faced a tricky legislative agenda.

With his hard-line colleagues frequently voting to block legislation from coming to the floor, upending a long-held axiom of the majority, Johnson has often been forced to circumvent their opposition by skirting normal House rules and using a procedure that forbids changes to legislation, limits debate and requires a two-thirds majority for bills to pass. That approach all but guarantees that whatever he brings up must have bipartisan support.

“We’ve got to realize I can’t throw a Hail Mary pass on every single play. It’s three yards and a cloud of dust,” he said in an interview on Fox News last month, using a term that describes a slow grind offensive strategy. “What we have to do in an era of divided government historically, as we are, you’ve got to build consensus. If we want to move a partisan measure, I’ve got to have every single member — literally. And some things need to be bipartisan.”

Johnson has pointed to a number of modest victories — singles and doubles, as he’s described them to his Republican colleagues — arguing that he has used the slim leverage he has to exact a number of conservative wins.

In the second tranche of spending bills lawmakers passed last month to keep the government funded through the fall, Republican negotiators won funding for an increase in new detention beds run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 2,000 new Border Patrol agents and a provision cutting off aid to the main U.N. agency that provides assistance to Palestinians. It cut funding for the State Department and foreign aid programs, a perennial target of conservative ire, by roughly 6%.

His discussions around Ukraine funding have included the idea of tying the aid for Kyiv to a measure that would force President Joe Biden to reverse a moratorium on new permits for liquefied natural gas export facilities, in what Republicans would see as a political victory against the Democratic president’s climate agenda, as well as a way to choke off Russian income from selling gas.

Such reality checks have done little to appease his restive right flank, whose members have become increasingly agitated over the series of governing decisions Johnson has made.

The foreign aid vote may be especially politically dangerous for him, because blocking aid to Ukraine is a top priority of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who has floated a threat to oust Johnson.

In a scathing letter sent to her colleagues that made the case for his removal, Greene noted that as a congressman, Johnson repeatedly opposed aid to Ukraine.

Johnson’s sole vote in favor of sending money to Kyiv came weeks after the start of the invasion, and tied together a $13.6 billion aid package to homeland security and defense funding. On the votes that followed, he opposed sending more aid.

“We should not be sending another $40 billion abroad when our own border is in chaos, American mothers are struggling to find baby formula, gas prices are at record highs, and American families are struggling to make ends meet, without sufficient oversight over where the money will go,” he said in May 2022, explaining his “no” vote.

Years later as speaker, Johnson has continued to call for better oversight of American funding to Ukraine. But he has also advanced another argument.

“We understand the role that America plays in the world,” he said at a news conference last month. “We understand the importance of sending a strong signal to the world, that we stand by our allies and we cannot allow terrorists and tyrants to march through the globe.”

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