Johnson Learns on the Job, Drawing the Ire of the Republican Right

Speaker Mike Johnson struggled to defend himself at a recent private party meeting on Capitol Hill when some House Republicans confronted their new leader asking for any evidence that he was leading them in a new direction or taking hits on their behalf.

“Just Google my name and you’ll see,” was Mr. Johnson’s reply. He had been besieged by unflattering media coverage since winning the gavel (much of it focused on his evangelical Christianity and hard-line stances against abortion rights and same-sex marriage), the Louisiana Republican told his colleagues. He had even been mocked on “Saturday Night Live,” he noted, by not one but two different comedians.

Mr. Johnson, a fairly anonymous lawmaker before his election last month, has struggled to adjust to the new level of scrutiny that has come with his sudden ascent to the post second in line to the presidency. Some Republicans thought his response at the meeting reflected his steep learning curve as he settles into the job.

A mild-mannered Christian conservative who does not curse and rarely raises his voice, Mr. Johnson has pleaded for “grace” from his fellow Republicans as he has made some of the same moves that led them to oust his predecessor, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California.

Hard-right conservatives were enraged by his decision last week to team with Democrats to push through legislation to avert a government shutdown, which meant leaving out the spending cuts and policy changes they demanded. A group of them protested the move by blocking a separate spending bill from being considered the following day, even as Mr. Johnson implored them to give him a break and fall in line.

“Speaker Johnson was on the floor of the House today, basically begging for forgiveness, frankly, from some of us in the Freedom Caucus who were giving him a lot of grief, trying to fight him and push him into the right direction on this spending bill,” Representative Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, told constituents during a recent virtual town hall meeting.

“I love Mike,” Mr. Roy said, according to a recording of his remarks obtained by The New York Times. “I told him on the floor of the House today, I said, ‘Mike, this is strike one. It might even be strike two. You’re not going to get any hall passes on this. I’m not going to hold you differently than I did Kevin McCarthy or anyone else.’”

“He’s been put on notice,” he added. “You now need to do your job. Let’s fight now.”

“I love Mike,” said Representative Chip Roy, one of the Republicans who opposed Mr. Johnson’s stopgap spending plan, but, he added, “he’s been put on notice.”Credit…Kent Nishimura for The New York Times

Mr. Johnson’s allies concede he is learning on the job, but they argue he is running the House in a far more functional way than his predecessor did — and even demonstrating courage in doing so.

“He’s got a spine of steel,” Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the majority leader who had a toxic relationship with Mr. McCarthy but has quickly forged a close rapport with his successor, said in an interview.

“Mike’s style is a lot different,” Mr. Scalise said of the change at the top. “He seeks input, and then when he makes a decision, he sticks with it. He’s willing to lean in and take the heat and then go out and sell it.”

Taylor Haulsee, a spokesman for Mr. Johnson, said the speaker was “committed to building consensus by empowering the Republican leadership team and seeking counsel from members across the conference.”

Mr. Johnson, who for decades has championed his hard-line views on social issues in opinion pieces and public speeches, has left plenty to dig through to show the heavy influence his religious beliefs have on his policy stances and political worldview.

Since winning the gavel, his openness about how he practices his faith has also drawn considerable attention, leading to the Google hits he referred to behind closed doors with his colleagues.

In a recently surfaced video clip that was mocked on late-night television, for instance, Mr. Johnson explained how he and his eldest son relied on a third-party service to incentivize them not to view pornography online. The company, Covenant Eyes, which says it helps customers fight “the lure of pornographic content online,” monitors a user’s browsing and notifies their designated “accountability partner” — Mr. Johnson’s is his son, Jack, and vice versa — if they view forbidden content. It’s a common practice among evangelical Christians, who often pair up to support each other’s spiritual development, including the avoidance of sexual temptation.

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Johnson has not tried to hide from or apologize for his evangelical views. In his first meetings as speaker, he started off with a prayer asking God for cooler heads and unity to prevail; he has since led some meetings without doing so.

It’s a stark stylistic change from Mr. McCarthy, whose references were based more in pop culture than in scripture. When the California Republican wanted to make clear he would not hold grudges against lawmakers who had tried to block him from the speakership, for instance, Mr. McCarthy quoted from “Ted Lasso,” telling his members that the happiest animal in the world was the goldfish, which was blessed with a 10-second memory.

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Johnson also is developing a reputation for a more collaborative approach than his predecessor’s. Unlike Mr. McCarthy, who did not solicit feedback from his top lieutenants and shot down ideas so routinely that they eventually stopped even raising them, Mr. Johnson regularly seeks input from Mr. Scalise, as well as from Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the majority whip, and Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the party’s No. 4.

But hard-right Republicans and their allies outside the government are concerned that Mr. Johnson is veering toward the same pragmatism and establishment tendencies that drove Mr. McCarthy and his predecessors in the job, despite describing himself as an “arch-conservative” and pledging his allegiance to former President Donald J. Trump.

Mr. Johnson has departed in style from his predecessor, Representative Kevin McCarthy, whose references were based more in pop culture and less in scripture.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

Mr. Johnson has told colleagues he wants to meet regularly with the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus to keep them apprised of his strategy, even if they disagree. For now, that is exactly where many of them find themselves. In a recent meeting, described by multiple people familiar with the exchange, Mr. Johnson tried to defend his legislation to avert a government shutdown, which they vehemently opposed, by arguing that it would ultimately help them achieve their goals.

“I’m doing this for your own good,” he told the group, which had been pressing for deep spending cuts that were not included in the bill.

Many Republicans are concerned that Mr. Johnson’s lack of experience is also leading him to make politically questionable choices.

His first substantive legislative decision was to tie $14 billion in aid to Israel to cuts to Internal Revenue Service enforcement, a deeply partisan move that was aimed at appeasing his far-right flank. But Mr. Johnson ultimately got nothing in return for that move. In the end, the measure predictably fell flat in the Senate, and the right wing still revolted over spending.

At the same time, Mr. Johnson has tried to assure more mainstream Republicans from competitive districts that he is pragmatic more than dogmatic, and that he recognizes he no longer just represents a deep-red district in a heavily Christian state. While he has opposed sending more aid to Ukraine, he has told Republicans that he is now willing to bring up a bill to do so — but that he wants to leverage it to extract concessions from Democrats on border policy.

As he has angered his right flank, Mr. Johnson has won some early praise from Democrats. Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, commended Mr. Johnson in a statement for embracing a bipartisan measure to keep government funding flowing. “If he keeps doing that, I think we can get a lot done that will help a lot of people,” Mr. Schumer said.

For now, while there may be brewing frustration with Mr. Johnson from the right, most Republicans do not think there is any appetite to oust another speaker before the 2024 election.

“He started in a very difficult situation,” Mr. Scalise said. “I can tell each week he’s definitely got a fuller grasp of the job.”

Ruth Graham contributed reporting.

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