Johnson Does Virtually Exactly What McCarthy Did To Keep Government Open 

Kevin McCarthy and Mike Johnson. TPM Illustration, Getty Images
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The House of Representatives passed a clean continuing resolution Tuesday with hefty bipartisan support, averting the shutdown that would have followed the expiration of the last stopgap, which cost former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) his job.

How did Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) pull off such a feat? He did essentially the exact same thing McCarthy did, avoiding a similar fate by dint of such incidentals as his newness in the post and members’ eagerness to get home for Thanksgiving.

Both had to produce versions of the stopgaps that could garner Democratic votes and, consequently, pissed off their right flank. Both had tried feinting in the hard-right direction before caving to work with Democrats as the shutdown deadline got nearer. 

The right wing this time still isn’t happy about the CR — but seems completely disinclined to punish Johnson for the same behavior that lost McCarthy the gavel. 

“We did put him in the game in the fourth quarter when we’re down 35-nothing and so we can’t hold him to the same standards as the guy who got us to that 35-nothing deficit,” Rep. Bob Good (R-VA), one of McCarthy’s ousters, told reporters Tuesday. “However, we don’t expect him to come in and punt on third down, and that’s what we think he’s doing here.”

“So while we support him, and, you know, we certainly don’t want to cut our quarterback — we want to keep playing our quarterback — but we want him to call the plays that give us a chance to win,” he added.

Perhaps even more powerful a force than the ideological flexibility of the party’s right flank is the weariness pervading the House. As Republican leadership mentioned many times in their morning press conference, the chamber has been in session for 10 weeks straight without recess. With members even more eager than usual to get home for Thanksgiving, the hunger for speaker punishment is much diminished. 

Johnson, for his part, insists that it’s a “very different situation” than the one that got McCarthy ousted, due to the “laddered” component of the CR. It’s part of his messaging campaign to convince the right wing that he got them a win with the two-step stopgap. They’d wanted many more rungs on the ladder to force a cascade of shutdown threats. 

“This is a different situation — the innovation that we’ve created, this new vehicle, that Democrats initially said was so frightening, actually turns out to be something that will change the way we do this,” Johnson said at his Tuesday morning press conference, when asked if he was concerned about getting the McCarthy treatment. 

No matter the fancy two-step maneuver, the basics remain the same. And many Republicans made clear Tuesday that the honeymoon Johnson was benefitting from this week would not persist into January and February, when the stopgaps expire. Then, when these same dynamics persist and the right flank is arguing for a slate of dead-on-arrival policy priorities — with no major holidays to skip down for — the precarity of Johnson’s speakership may come into sharper focus.  

For Democrats, this second shutdown showdown went about as well as they could have hoped. They got a clean funding bill, and gave up almost no concessions for their votes except the laddered element, which they think is “nuts” and “goofy.” But they’re already recasting the CR as a win for their side. 

“We held firm on the fact that whatever we did had to be at the legislative 2023 levels — no cuts, no cuts, no cuts — with an extremist group over there that is in total chaos and has been the entire Congress,” Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA) told TPM as she left the Tuesday morning vote. “The other thing that we said and held firm on was that we won’t accept any poison pills. We’re not looking at amendments on abortion, LGBTQ, all the banned books, whatever craziness they’re up against.” 

This vote has often been framed as Johnson’s first big test as speaker. That he got through it alive speaks more to the member exhaustion and “new kid in class” goodwill he was a beneficiary of than to any change in the dynamics that have made leading the Republican conference untenable. 

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