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Thursday, October 26, 2023

Opinion | A fifth-string speaker suits up for House Republicans - The Washington Post

Opinion A fifth-string speaker suits up for House Republicans

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) is sworn in as speaker of the House on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post) 

"It happened on Day 22 of House Republicans’ slapstick quest to find a new speaker, as they were bickering their way toward nominating Majority Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota, their fourth-string choice for the position, who would be shot down just a few hours after he was chosen.

“Let’s get our poop in a group, people. We’ve got to figure this out,” Rep. Bill Huizenga (Mich.) admonished his GOP colleagues in a closed-door caucus meeting on Tuesday. (The remarks, naturally, were immediately leaked to reporters.) “I don’t want us to go out there and, in front of the entire world, puke on our shoes again. That’s what we’ve been doing.”

Grouping poop? Puking on shoes? The Chaos Caucus had finally found its new digs: in the sewer. Huizenga’s was an unpleasant (if reasonably accurate) gastrointestinal diagnosis for what ails House Republicans. But it was arguably preferable to the urological diagnosis being offered by some of his colleagues.

The evening before, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), asked the panel of nine men then running for speaker whether they would impeach or otherwise harass various Biden administration officials. “I want to know which one of you have the balls to hold them accountable,” she said, as relayed to the indispensable Olivia Beavers of Politico.

This was the second time in a week that a woman in the GOP caucus had raised doubts about her colleagues’ testicles. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), irritated that Rep. Greg Murphy (R-N.C.) blocked her on social media, posted: “This is exactly what’s wrong with this place — too many men here with no balls.”

Actually, the problem is almost certainly the opposite: A toxic overdose of testosterone, resulting in aggressive behavior and excessive risk-taking.

“What’s up, friends? Nothing? Or nothing?” Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) asked reporters on Tuesday. We once again had been waiting for hours in the hallways of the Longworth building while Republicans squabbled among themselves behind closed doors.

Majority Leader Steve Scalise (La.), one of the failed candidates for speaker, followed behind him. “What Gallagher said!” Scalise seconded.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.), from the Houston area, blamed the Republicans’ latest disarray on the outcome of the American League Championship Series. “I told people there would be problems if the Rangers won, and that’s exactly what’s happened,” he said.

Gallagher, by contrast, saw an NFL analogy for his party’s dysfunction. “As the Republican representative from Green Bay, it pains me to ask this question,” he told a group of us, “but I’m not sure who sucks at team sports more right now — the Packers or the House Republican caucus.

That’s easy: The Packers have only lost three in a row.

Minutes before Gallagher’s remarks, Emmer, the Republicans’ fourth choice for speaker (following Kevin McCarthy, Scalise and Jim Jordan), stormed out of the GOP conference meeting where he had just withdrawn his doomed candidacy. Emerging through a wooden door marked “PRIVATE,” he rushed out of the building, leading dozens of journalists on a high-speed foot chase. In the stampede, journalists knocked into equipment and stanchions, as they followed Emmer east on Independence Avenue, then south on New Jersey Avenue, where he frantically searched for a black SUV that rushed him away.

Emmer, nominated by his colleagues at noon, had immediately been crippled by former president Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans who were furious that Emmer had previously voted for gay marriage and to honor the results of the 2020 election. By my watch, he had been the speaker-designate for four hours and seven minutes.

Republican dysfunction had gone from amusing to embarrassing to absurd to … well, no one had words anymore. In a huge scrum of reporters after Emmer quit, journalist Ben Jacobs asked Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) whether the speakership chaos had become absurd. Replied Womack: “It was absurd last week.”

Updates from Elise Stefanik, the GOP conference chair, had become a running joke.

“Congratulations Speaker-designate @SteveScalise!” she posted on Oct. 11.

“Congratulations Speaker-designate @Jim_Jordan!” she posted on Oct. 13.

“Congratulations Speaker-designate @GOPMajorityWhip [Emmer]!” she posted at 12:15 p.m. on Tuesday.

And finally: “Congratulations Speaker-designate @RepMikeJohnson!” she posted at 9:54 p.m. on Tuesday.

Over their three speakerless weeks, House Republicans booted McCarthy (Calif.) and their first three choices to replace him. They heard from 12 candidates, including four who ran more than once. They held five votes on the House floor and about 15 behind closed doors. “I mean, what are we going to do, go down and just put everybody’s name in a damn hat?” asked Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Tex.) asked on Tuesday.

Finally, on Tuesday night, House Republicans picked the name “Johnson” out of the phone book. He was acceptable because he was unknown on Capitol Hill, even to many Republicans. During Wednesday’s roll-call vote on the House floor, Kay Granger (R-Tex.), chair of the Appropriations Committee, rose and mistakenly voted for “Mike Rogers” — the chairman of the Armed Services committee — before correcting herself to Mike Johnson. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), in a statement congratulating the new speaker, called him Jim Johnson. Susan Collins of Maine, top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, told CNN’s Lauren Fox Wednesday morning that she’d have to Google him.

Johnson’s anonymity was his greatest asset. In just his seventh year in Congress, he hadn’t been around long enough, or had enough power, to make enemies. He is the least-experienced speaker in a century and a half. But he has also been an avid election denier, Trump defender and promoter of the deep-state conspiracy, which appealed to the MAGA hard-liners who had defeated McCarthy, Scalise and Emmer.

Johnson had two other things going for him, too: Exhaustion (about 25 Republicans skipped the final vote in the GOP caucus meeting that nominated him Tuesday night) and a fear that, if yet another nominee failed, a small band of Republican institutionalists might actually make good on their threat to work with Democrats to return the chamber to functioning.

“If you do that, you’re done,” Rep. Wesley Hunt (R-Tex.) told us. “That’s not even an option.”

Now, three weeks before the next deadline to avoid a government shutdown, Republicans have elected a no-name speaker with no experience and no agreement on a way forward. And the hard-liners have already started threatening him. Just minutes after Johnson won the speakership, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), a leader of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, told Bloomberg News’s Erik Wasson that any bill avoiding a shutdown on Nov. 17 would need to impose something like the 30 percent slashing of government spending that House Republicans attempted last month.

The new speaker is already in trouble.

“Because of the absolute nonsense of the last four weeks, I think the chance of a shutdown went from 10 percent four or five weeks ago to probably something more like a coin flip,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) told us. In between Emmer’s four-hour reign and Johnson’s nomination, Johnson allowed that “the last four weeks have not provided me with a lot of reason to be optimistic that Republicans are going to have our act together. … We need to be aware that, any given day, eight or 10 people can decide they want to blow the whole thing up.”

Nine men entered the speakership race after Jordan’s bid collapsed. For the unknown backbenchers who joined the speaker free-for-all, these were their 15 minutes of fame. Outside the candidate forum in the Longworth building on Monday night, flashes went off and reporters gave chase when Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Mich.) walked down the hallway during his (brief) candidacy. “Mr. Scott! Mr. Scott!” reporters called after the previously invisible Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.).

Bergman, asked after the forum whether he had a “path forward” in Tuesday’s voting, told reporters: “Well, I have a path at least to get up in the morning and get here.”

Rep. Dan Meuser (R-Pa.) didn’t even get that far. He made his pitch to lawmakers on Monday night — and then immediately dropped out.

Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) gave out printed campaign cards detailing the “Palmer Principles.”

But Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), a former McDonald’s franchisee, topped all contenders by delivering two cheeseburgers to each of his Republican colleagues.

Still, as Tuesday’s voting would make clear, House Republicans were still a couple of fries short of a Happy Meal.

Emmer was the front-runner for the speakership on Tuesday morning, and his supporters predicted a quick victory. But he had two big problems: Trump didn’t like him, and Democrats did. Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips (Minn.) posted that he would “sit-out the speaker vote” to help Emmer win — if Emmer agreed to his conditions. But Trump shared on social media a post by right-wing provocateur Laura Loomer calling Emmer a “NEVER TRUMPER and COMMUNIST ENABLER.”

Emmer had 78 supporters on the first ballot to Johnson’s 34. But it took him four more ballots, with candidates eliminated in each, to get a narrow majority: 117 to Johnson’s 97.

A roll-call vote showed that about two dozen wouldn’t vote for Emmer on the floor. The usual suspects on the far right — Greene, Roy, Bob Good (Va.), Scott Perry (Pa.), Andy Biggs (Ariz.) — were ready to tank his candidacy, and they had more than enough votes to do so. The legislative terrorists had taken another hostage. Emmer kept the holdouts in the room, to see whether he could change their minds. But it was no use. Rep. Rick Allen (Ga.) told Emmer that he needed to “get right with Jesus” because of Emmer’s support for gay marriage, Punchbowl News reported.

Outside the room, Republicans went through another wave of despair.

“We’ve been three weeks without a speaker,” McCarthy complained. “Every member is tired of this.”

“It’s disheartening,” offered Rep. Brandon Williams (R-N.Y.).

“Distressing,” said Rep. Marcus Molinaro, another New Yorker.

“A disservice to the country,” said Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.)

“We’ve got to figure out how to function,” Dusty Johnson told us. “This is a mess.”

Punchbowl’s Max Cohen asked him about Mike Johnson as a backup option for Emmer. “You mean the backup to the backup to the backup to the backup?” the South Dakotan replied.

Republicans recessed the caucus meeting for a couple of hours to give Emmer time to win converts. They canceled nine committee hearings that had been scheduled for the day. In what had become a familiar pattern, GOP lawmakers and others began to announce their formal opposition to the nominee. Jim Banks (Ind.) called Emmer a “liberal” whose ascension would “betray our voters.” Trump, who could see Emmer was going down, finished him off with a post calling him a “Globalist RINO.”

Emmer withdrew. Greene celebrated. “This is good,” she told reporters. “The GOP conference has changed and it’s changing to reflect America First.”

Greene was right. The legislative terrorists won, again. They ousted McCarthy, blocked Scalise, nearly succeeded at installing Jordan (Ohio), and blocked Emmer. And now, as Republicans began another round of voting on Tuesday night, the only candidates left standing were MAGA faithful. All five of them voted to overturn the 2020 election. “Voting now. All candidates now 100 percent Trump,” one of the candidates, Chuck Fleischmann (Tenn.) texted to a Trump aide. “All 5. I preached Trump in my speech.” Trump posted the sycophantic message on social media.

On the third ballot, just before 10 p.m., Johnson claimed a majority. The hard-liners had gotten their guy — and everybody else was too exhausted to object.

“This group here is ready to govern,” Johnson declared, standing with a group of his colleagues. “You’re going to see this group looking, working like a well-oiled machine.”

ABC News’s Rachel Scott asked Johnson about his role in attempting to overturn the 2020 election.

“Shut up! Shut up!” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) standing to Johnson’s side, bellowed at the journalist.

Johnson smiled and shook his head. “Next question,” he said.

Another reporter asked about Israel.

“Go away! Go away!” cried Foxx.

“We’re not doing policy tonight,” Johnson said.

Nor the next day. After Johnson’s election on the House floor, GOP leadership called a “press conference” with the new speaker on the Capitol steps — but then he refused to take questions.

The Post’s Jacqueline Alemany buttonholed Johnson and asked about whether the 2020 election was stolen. “We’re not talking about any issues today,” he said.

On the House floor Wednesday afternoon, Republicans quelled their anger at each other for the moment, leaving them free to vent it once more at Democrats.

“The federal government has been illegally weaponized against we the people,” Stefanik (N.Y.) said during her speech nominating Johnson.

Democrats groaned at the deep-state nonsense; Johnson applauded the line.

“I’ll say it again: The federal government has been illegally weaponized,” Stefanik repeated.

Speaking for the Democrats, Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.) told the House that the speaker squabble was “about who can appease Donald Trump.”

On the Republican side, Nehls and others stood to applaud.

Aguilar spoke of Johnson’s role in discrediting the 2020 election.

“Damn right!” shouted Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.).

Aguilar said that “if House Republicans choose, they can still join us on a bipartisan path forward.”

Several Republicans shouted “no!”

During the voting, Republicans unanimously stood for the man Rep. Zachary Nunn (Iowa) called “Miracle Mike.”

When Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) voted for Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries as “the only candidate that protects the integrity of this House,” the Republican side erupted in boos and a shout of “bulls---!”

And when Jeffries, who had the task of handing the gavel to Johnson, preceded it with a speech, he was treated to heckling from Greene, jeering and booing when he mentioned the Jan. 6 insurrection, shouts of “regular order” to cut him off, and finally a chant of “We want Mike!”

After shutting the House down for three weeks, they couldn’t give the Democratic leader three minutes.

Johnson, accepting the gavel, alluded to the unexpected — and unlikely — nature of his ascent. It happened so “suddenly,” he said, that his wife “couldn’t get a flight in time.”

It was a gracious speech, and he won bipartisan applause when he announced: “The people’s House is back in business.”

Back in business — but, as the heckling of the hooligans on the House floor made clear, as dysfunctional as before."

Opinion | A fifth-string speaker suits up for House Republicans - The Washington Post

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