House GOP already considering a future without Johnson

Despite serving barely three months as speaker, the Louisianan is already facing an immediate threat from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who is openly disparaging him and suggesting she may try to boot him from the speakership.

“I don’t think he’s safe right now,” Greene said, adding: “The only reason he’s speaker is because our conference is so desperate.”

Few Republicans are prepared to join Greene, at least at this point. But more than 100 of them signaled frustration with Johnson’s approach to government spending by opposing a funding patch on Thursday, including House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who briefly served as interim speaker,
delivered a blunt warning
Thursday night that “we’re sucking wind” under Johnson’s leadership, urging the speaker to broaden his circle of advisers and avoid kowtowing to his right.

And still other Republicans are privately predicting that unless Johnson can hang onto their thin majority this fall, his time atop the GOP conference could expire.

Interviews with more than a dozen GOP lawmakers revealed a consensus that Johnson would have serious trouble staying in power after an electoral defeat. These days, some lawmakers who embraced Johnson — after the failure of three other aspiring successors to former Speaker Kevin McCarthy — openly acknowledge that the Louisianan would get the blame for any stumble at the ballot box this fall.

“It’s up to him to win or lose. And if he loses, he will leave,” said Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, a former National Republican Congressional Committee chair.

Sessions, who had his own short-lived bid for the gavel in October, predicted that if Republicans do not hold the majority, then Johnson “isn’t going to stick around — I mean that.”

Johnson’s difficult position is partly a product of what one McCarthy ally described as the “bad hand” he inherited from the ex-speaker, a politically exhausting series of legislative challenges that are piling up as the House GOP majority shrinks to two seats at full attendance. It’s hard to see any Republican leader emerging unscathed from brutal, lengthy negotiations over border security, aid to Ukraine and Israel and government funding.

Despite McHenry’s criticism, McCarthy did his own catering to his right flank, particularly during his initial speakership bid. Yet Johnson’s vulnerability also reflects his relatively thin political operation and short time in office, not to mention in leadership.

Unlike McCarthy, Johnson did not enter the speaker’s suite surrounded by a powerful fundraising and campaign infrastructure — or the same type of long-standing relationships that his No. 2 and No. 3, Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Majority Whip Tom Emmer, spent years developing.

Which leaves, for some House Republicans, a clear connection between this fall’s election and their future leadership team. If the GOP hangs onto the House, Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) predicted no “substantive change in the leadership structure.”

“But if you lose the House, then I think all bets are off,” he added. “And there may be a desire and discussion about starting over or coming up with a different leadership team.”

If Republicans lose the House this fall, with Donald Trump likely at the top of the ticket, they’d also shed a leadership seat next year. That vacancy could trigger a power struggle between Johnson and other top Republicans, including Scalise and Emmer. Some Johnson allies predicted a potential face-off between Scalise and Emmer for minority whip, however, while Johnson shifts down to minority leader. Most, however, predicted a showdown between the Louisiana Republicans if no one opted to step aside.

“The Nancy Pelosi custom is everybody gets pushed down one [in the move out of the majority], but we’re not Nancy. And we’re going to have a lot of soul searching that will go on,” Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said.

“Speaker Johnson, Leader Scalise, Whip Emmer, Chair Stefanik and the entire elected leadership are focused solely on ending the border crisis, bringing relief to Americans harmed by inflation and rising crime, and growing the majority in 2024,” Johnson spokesperson Taylor Haulsee said.

A spokesperson for Scalise, Lauren Fine, said that he and Johnson as well as the rest of the leadership team “are working closely together to advance our conservative agenda,” as well ensuring the House GOP has the “resources we need to grow our majority and fire Joe Biden in 2024.”

If Johnson doesn’t stay on as the top House Republican in 2025, some in the GOP believe he could return to the Judiciary Committee, where Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) faces term limits as the party’s top member. Johnson could also leverage his time as speaker into employment off the Hill, like many Republicans predict McCarthy plans to do.

Broadly speaking, if House Republicans put up a lackluster showing this fall, there’s no guarantee that any member of their leadership — including Johnson, Scalise and Emmer — would be safe.

“If we go back in the minority, do we need to take a different direction as we go forward as a conference?” asked Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), chair of the Republican Study Committee, who also ran for the speakership. “I think the entire leadership team would be looked at.”

Asked about Johnson’s standing if the party loses the majority, one senior House Republican quipped that speculation about it is “happening now.” This Republican added, granted anonymity to speak candidly: “It’s a new year. You can smell it in the air.”

Should the GOP cling to power this fall, Johnson has much better chances at keeping his leadership job. But as House Republicans discovered during the 2022 midterms, when their leaders’ predictions of a “red wave” evaporated and smaller gains materialized, what constitutes a win depends on who you ask.

It’s not all doom and gloom predictions for Johnson, despite some early perceived missteps, such as the persistent criticism of his willingness to work with Democrats on government funding.

Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Texas), a Johnson ally who praised the speaker as doing a “fantastic job,” said he’d expect Scalise and Emmer to duke it out for the whip role if the GOP loses the majority. Generally, Fallon said he thinks Johnson would be safe no matter what happens this fall.

Rep. Ralph Norman (R-N.C.), a Freedom Caucus member, also said he’d expect Johnson to stay on as minority leader if the GOP loses power. So did Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who represents a hotly contested battleground district.

Johnson allies argue that skeptics are underestimating him, pointing to his quick progress assuaging concerns that he couldn’t keep up with McCarthy’s torrid fundraising pace. The more he helps with the 2024 campaign and candidate recruitment, the more Johnson can form some of the deeper connections to incoming members that helped McCarthy survive a grueling speakership race last January.

Even so, Republicans are openly admitting that they’re worried about November. Which is never a good sign.

“We’re in real jeopardy of not winning the White House and not winning the House,” said Rep. Richard McCormick (R-Ga.), who argued the party is not focused on voters’ top issues.

“The Federal Reserve is going to cut [interest rates] probably at least twice, if not five times this year. The gas price always comes down during an election. And the border will be secured before November. It’s gonna happen, right? It’s gonna be part of some package,” McCormick mused. “What are the three things that are the Achilles heel of Biden? Those three things.”

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