WASHINGTON: Republicans unanimously elected Rep. Mike Johnson as House speaker on Wednesday, eagerly elevating a deeply conservative but lesser-known leader to the major seat of US power and ending for now the weeks of political chaos in their majority.
Johnson, 51, of Louisiana, swept through on the first ballot with support from all Republicans anxious to put the past weeks of tumult behind and get on with the business of governing. He was quickly sworn into office, second in line to the presidency.
“The people’s House is back in business,” Johnson declared after taking the gavel.
A lower-ranked member of the House GOP leadership team, Johnson emerged as the fourth Republican nominee in what had become an almost absurd cycle of political infighting since Kevin McCarthy’s ouster as GOP factions jockeyed for power.
While not the party’s top choice for the gavel, the deeply religious and even-keeled Johnson has few foes and an important GOP backer: Donald Trump.
“I think he’s gonna be a fantastic speaker,” Trump said Wednesday at the New York courthouse where the former president, who is now the Republican front-runner for president in 2024, is on trial over a lawsuit alleging business fraud.
Three weeks on without a House speaker, the Republicans have been wasting their majority status — a maddening embarrassment to some, democracy in action to others, but not at all how the House is expected to function.
President Joe Biden called to congratulate the new speaker and said it’s “time for all of us to act responsibly” with challenges ahead to fund the government and provide aid for Ukraine and Israel.
“We need to move swiftly,” the president said in a statement.
In the House, far-right members had refused to accept a more traditional speaker, and moderate conservatives didn’t want a hard-liner. While Johnson had no opponents during a private party roll call late Tuesday, some two dozen Republicans did not vote, more than enough to sink his nomination.
But when GOP Conference Chair Rep. Elize Stefanik rose to introduce Johnson’s name Wednesday as their nominee, Republicans jumped to their feet for a standing ovation.
“House Republicans and Speaker Mike Johnson will never give up,” she said.
Democrats again nominated their leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, criticizing Johnson as an architect of Trump’s legal effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election he lost to Democrat Biden.
With Republicans controlling the House only 221-212 over Democrats, Johnson could afford just a few detractors to win the gavel. He won 220-209, with a few absences.
Jeffries said House Democrats will find “common ground” work with Republicans whenever possible for the “good of the country.”
Lawmakers quickly reconvened to get back to work, approving a resolution saying the House “stands with Israel” and “condemns Hamas’ brutal war.” Next, they turned to a stalled government funding bill.
Overnight the endorsements for Johnson started pouring in, including from the failed speaker hopefuls. Rep. Jim Jordan, the hard-charging Judiciary Committee chairman backed by Trump, gave his support, as did Majority Leader Steve Scalize, the fellow Louisiana congressman rejected by Jordan’s wing, who stood behind Johnson after he won the nomination.
“Mike! Mike! Mike!” lawmakers chanted at a press conference after the late-night internal vote, surrounding Johnson and posing for selfies in a show of support.
Anxious and exhausted, Republican lawmakers are desperately trying to move on.
Johnson’s rise comes after a tumultuous month, capped by a head-spinning Tuesday that within a span of a few hours saw one candidate, Rep. Tom Emmer, the GOP Whip, nominated and then quickly withdraw when it became clear he would be the third candidate unable to secure enough support from GOP colleagues after Trump bashed his nomination.
“He wasn’t MAGA,” said Trump, referring to his Make America Great Again campaign slogan.
Attention quickly turned to Johnson. A lawyer specializing in constitutional issues, Johnson had rallied Republicans around Trump’s legal effort to overturn the 2020 election results.
Elevating Johnson to speaker gives Louisianians two high-ranking GOP leaders, putting him above Scalize.
Affable and well liked, colleagues swiftly started giving Johnson their support. In no time, his name replaced McCarthy’s on the sign outside the speaker’s office in the Capitol.
The congressman, who drew on his Christian beliefs, said to the American people watching: “Our mission here is to serve you well and to restore the people’s faith in this House.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who led a small band of hard-liners to engineer McCarthy’s ouster at the start of the month, posted on social media that “Mike Johnson won’t be the Speaker the Swamp wants but, he is the Speaker America needs.”
Republicans have been flailing all month, unable to conduct routine business as they fight among themselves with daunting challenges ahead.
The federal government risks a shutdown in a matter of weeks if Congress fails to pass funding legislation by a Nov. 17 deadline to keep services and offices running. More immediately, President Biden has asked Congress to provide $105 billion in aid — to help Israel and Ukraine amid their wars and to shore up the US border with Mexico. Federal aviation and farming programs face expiration without action.
Many hard-liners have been resisting a leader who voted for the budget deal that McCarthy struck with Biden earlier this year, which set federal spending levels that far-right Republicans don’t agree with and now want to undo. They are pursuing steeper cuts to federal programs and services with next month’s funding deadline.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia said she wanted assurances the candidates would pursue impeachment inquiries into Biden and other top Cabinet officials.
In all, some 15 congressmen, but no women, competed for the gavel over the past several weeks.
During the turmoil, the House was led by a speaker pro tempore, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the bow tie-wearing chairman of the Financial Services Committee. His main job was to elect a more permanent speaker.
Some Republicans — and Democrats — wanted to give McHenry more power to get on with the routine business of governing. But McHenry, the first person to be in the position that was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as an emergency measure, declined to back those overtures. He, too, received a standing ovation.