Speaker Mike Johnson’s Spectacular Day of Failure

The little man in the tall weeds.
Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Washington is still abuzz with amazement at last week’s categorical rejection by House Speaker Mike Johnson of a pending Senate-negotiated border-security deal that made nativist hearts flutter and represented an abject surrender (or at best, a tactical retreat) by Democrats on one of the GOP’s top priorities. It made Johnson look like someone far more interested in political posturing than in legislating and also reinforced his reputation as an especially submissive toady of Donald Trump, who opposes any deals with Democrats on any subject until he’s returned to the White House.

But it turns out Johnson was just warming up in his efforts to play the fool. On February 6, he managed to put together a spectacular display of legislative failure, losing a bid to impeach Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and then pulling off the nearly impossible feat of getting beaten on a clean bill offering aid to Israel, a great bipartisan favorite.

The Mayorkas disaster was apparently a simple matter of Johnson not being able to count votes, as Politico Playbook reported:

Johnson pushed forward with the impeachment vote in the face of numerous red flags, expressing confidence throughout the day yesterday that he had the votes to oust Mayorkas.

So much for that. Rep. MIKE GALLAGHER (R-Wis.) — a respected former Marine officer and committee chair — made good on threats to oppose the articles, joining Reps. KEN BUCK (R-Colo.) and TOM McCLINTOCK (R-Calif.), who have long argued that policy differences aren’t grounds for impeachment.

The bigger problem, though, was that Johnson and the rest of the GOP leadership team didn’t have a firm grasp on their whip count. They appeared to assume that Rep. AL GREEN (D-Texas) — who’d been in the ER for surgery yesterday — wouldn’t show. But in a dramatic moment, he was wheeled into the chamber wearing scrubs to cast the decisive vote.

After that fiasco, Johnson moved on to a more predictable if even more embarrassing defeat. Having killed the border-security deal central to a broader package of legislation extending aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, Johnson wanted to make it clear House Republicans still loved Israel, notwithstanding their deep divisions on Ukraine. So he offered a “clean” stand-alone Israel aid bill. But because the hard-core conservatives of the House Freedom Caucus are in open revolt against Johnson’s leadership, they are systematically blocking rules votes. So the Speaker had to bring up the Israel measure under a suspension of the rules that requires a two-thirds supermajority.

Again, he didn’t have the votes; he lost Republicans who are still demanding spending cuts in exchange for any new spending and Democrats angry at Johnson’s destructive conduct on the broader package. Instead of yanking the measure, he blundered ahead and tried to blame the failed vote on Democrats, of course. But coming on the heels of the Mayorkas debacle, it just reinforced the impression that Mike Johnson is in way over his head. The jaded Beltway insiders at Punchbowl News were aghast:

We’ve seen fits and starts, crashes and burns and our fair share of missteps by House GOP leaders through the years.

But what we’re now witnessing with Speaker Mike Johnson’s House defies definition.

Tuesday’s debacle — failing to impeach DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and then choosing to lose a vote on $17 billion in aid to Israel — is truly one of the most embarrassing days in recent House GOP history.

Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of either effort, losing back-to-back votes shows a House Republican legislative process that isn’t optimized for winning. GOP leaders can reverse both defeats, but the damage to their reputation is immense.

Now Johnson is facing a far more difficult task than either of those he fumbled on February 6: enacting appropriations bills to keep the federal government open now that the stopgap spending bills Congress has enacted thrice are likely no longer an option. But embarrassed House Republicans don’t exactly have any lively leadership alternatives given the nightmarish quagmire that led to the unexpected elevation of Speaker Mike Johnson last year.

Johnson’s own priorities, however, appear to be twofold and closely connected: avoiding a Freedom Caucus–generated “motion to vacate the chair” of the sort that brought down his predecessor Kevin McCarthy, and staying on good terms with Donald Trump. From that point of view, this week’s spectacular day of failure in the House represented a mission accomplished.

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