Governing the Ungovernable

House Speaker Mike Johnson

Jess Bidgood at The New York Times: When members of Congress return to Washington from their home districts, they often trudge to Capitol Hill for a tally known as a “bed check,” a low-stakes vote series that is mostly aimed at taking attendance.

On Tuesday night, even though Republicans ostensibly control the House, more Democrats were actually present in the chamber for both of those votes — making the exercise a temporary reminder of just how painful this moment is for Speaker Mike Johnson.

The majority led by Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, keeps shrinking. Restive members of the far-right Freedom Caucus frequently derail his plans. And he is on a collision course with former President Donald Trump and a broader swath of the Republican rank and file over issues like aid to Ukraine, while Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene dangles a threat to oust him.

“The Lord Jesus himself could not manage this conference,” Representative Troy Nehls of Texas, a Republican, said on CNN this week. “You just can’t do it.”

Amid the tumult, Johnson appeared at Mar-a-Lago on Friday in an apparent effort to shore up his support from the former president. The hope, it seemed, was that the two could see past their differences if they united around something that fires up the Republican base: stoking unfounded distrust in the election.

During the joint appearance, Johnson said he would introduce a bill that would “require proof of citizenship to vote” and baselessly claimed that undocumented voters could tip American elections, even though voting by people who are not citizens is exceedingly rare. And he got what he had most likely come for: a full-throated endorsement from the former president.

“I stand with the speaker,” Trump said.

I spoke with my colleague Catie Edmondson, who covers Congress for the The New York Times, about Johnson’s delicate dance with Trump as the speaker faces his most precarious moment yet in a tenuous term.

JB: Let’s start with a simple question. What is the fundamental problem facing Johnson as speaker?

CE: The ouster of former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in October showed that, regardless of who is the leader of the Republican conference, it is an unwieldy group of people that is, in some ways, ungovernable.

It’s not a functioning majority. There are members of the Freedom Caucus preventing Johnson from even bringing legislation to the floor for a vote, which is what we saw Wednesday as he attempted to extend a key surveillance tool. Greene is using the threat of ouster to torment him. It’s a world of hurt for him right now.

JB: Johnson cut a deal to reauthorize that surveillance law this morning. He says he is looking for a way to advance Ukraine aid after refusing to put the issue to a vote. He has also kept government open with the help of Democrats. These are all the kinds of things he generally would have voted against as a rank-and-file member, as you’ve observed. How has being the speaker shifted his priorities?

CE: Johnson has described the experience of receiving classified briefings about intelligence and volatile situations abroad as sobering. He’s no longer solely responsible for representing his very conservative district. He is second in line to the presidency. He has to make sure government functions in a smooth fashion. He’s also responsible for protecting frontline Republicans in politically vulnerable districts. I think all of that has changed his worldview on some of these big decisions…

More here.