Republicans chose Rep. Mike Johnson as their latest nominee for House speaker late Tuesday, hours after an earlier pick, Rep. Tom Emmer, abruptly withdrew in the face of opposition from Donald Trump and hardline GOP lawmakers.
Johnson of Louisiana, a lower-ranked member of the House GOP leadership team, becomes the fourth nominee after Emmer and the others fell short in what has become an almost absurd cycle of political infighting since Kevin McCarthy’s ouster as GOP factions jockey for power.
Refusing to unify, far-right members won’t accept a more traditional speaker and more moderate members don’t want a hardliner. Johnson immediately faced a roll call behind closed doors to test his support ahead of a House floor vote, when he’ll need almost all Republicans to win the gavel.
Three weeks on, the Republicans are frittering away their majority status—a maddening embarrassment to some, democracy in action to others, but not at all how the House is expected to function.
“Pretty sad commentary on governance right now,” said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark. “Maybe on the fourth or fifth or sixth or 10th try we’ll get this thing right.”
After he withdrew Tuesday afternoon, Emmer briskly left the building where he had been meeting privately with Republicans, but he returned later to offices at the Capitol. He said Trump’s opposition did not affect his decision to bow out.
“I made my decision based on my relationship with the conference,” he said, referring to the GOP majority. He said he would support whomever emerges as the new nominee. “We’ll get it done.”
Trump, speaking as he left the courtroom in New York where he faces business fraud charges, said his “un-endorsement” must have had an impact on Emmer’s bid.
“He wasn’t MAGA,” said Trump, the party’s front-runner for the 2024 presidential election, referring to his Make America Great Again campaign slogan.
House Republicans returned behind closed doors, where they spend much of their time, desperately searching for a leader who can unite the factions, reopen the House and get the U.S. Congress working again.
Attention quickly turned to Johnson of Louisiana, a member of party leadership who was the second highest vote-getter on Tuesday’s internal ballots. He earned 128 votes in the evening vote.
A lawyer specializing in constitutional issues, Johnson had rallied Republicans around Trump’s legal effort to overturn the 2020 election results.
But hardliners swiftly resisted Johnson’s bid and a new list of candidates emerged within minutes of an evening deadline. Among them was Reps. Byron Donalds of Florida, a Trump ally who ran third on the morning ballot, and a few others. McCarthy, who was not on the ballot, won a surprising 43 votes.
“We’re in the same cul-de-sac,” said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the chairman of the far-right House Freedom Caucus.
Yet Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., one of the hardliners, said, “This is what democracy looks like.”
One idea circulating, first reported by NBC News, was to reinstall McCarthy as speaker with hardline Rep. Jim Jordan in a new leadership role.
It was being pitched as a way to unite the conference, lawmakers said, but they were not certain it would fly.
“I think sometimes it’s good to have fresh ideas and fresh people,” said Rep. Victoria Spartz, R-Ind.
Emmer of Minnesota had jumped out in front during private morning balloting among a hodgepodge list of mostly lesser-known congressmen aspiring to be speaker, a powerful position second in line to the presidency.
While Emmer won a simple majority in a roll call behind closed doors—117 votes—he lost more than two dozen Republicans, leaving him far short of what will be needed during a House floor tally ahead.
But Trump allies, including the influential hard-right instigator Steve Bannon, have been critical of Emmer. Some point to his support of a same-sex marriage initiative and perceived criticisms of the former president. Among the far-right groups pressuring lawmakers over the speaker’s vote, some quickly attacked Emmer.
Coming in a steady second in the morning balloting, Johnson offered his full support to Emmer, saying, “What we have to do in this room is unite and begin to govern again.”
Others were eliminated during multiple rounds of voting, including Donalds and Rep. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, a conservative leader and former McDonald’s franchise owner who plied his colleagues with hamburgers seeking their support. Reps. Austin Scott of Georgia, Jack Bergman of Michigan, Pete Sessions of Texas, Gary Palmer of Alabama and Dan Meuser of Pennsylvania also dropped out.
Having rejected the top replacements, Majority Leader Steve Scalise and the Trump-backed Jordan, there is no longer any obvious choice for the job.
With Republicans controlling the House 221-212 over Democrats, any GOP nominee can afford just a few detractors to win the gavel.
Republicans have been flailing all month, unable to conduct routine business as they fight amongst themselves with daunting challenges ahead.
The federal government risks a shutdown in a matter of weeks if Congress fails to pass funding legislation by a Nov. 17 deadline to keep services and offices running. More immediately, President Joe Biden has asked Congress to provide $105 billion in aid—to help Israel and Ukraine amid their wars and to shore up the U.S. border with Mexico. Federal aviation and farming programs face expiration without action.
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, the hard-right leader who engineered McCarthy’s ouster, has said several of those who were running—Hern, Donalds or Johnson—would make a “phenomenal” choice for speaker.
Nevertheless, Gaetz voted for Emmer, though others who joined in ousting McCarthy did not.
Many Emmer opponents were resisting a leader who voted for the budget deal that McCarthy struck with Biden earlier this year, which set federal spending levels that far-right Republicans don’t agree with and now want to undo. They are pursuing steeper cuts to federal programs and services with next month’s funding deadline.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia said she wanted assurances the candidates would pursue impeachment inquiries into Biden and other top Cabinet officials.
During the turmoil, the House is now led by a nominal interim speaker pro tempore, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the bow tie-wearing chairman of the Financial Services Committee. His main job is to elect a more permanent speaker.
Some Republicans—and Democrats—would like to simply give McHenry more power to get on with the routine business of governing. But McHenry, the first person to be in the position that was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as an emergency measure, has declined to back those overtures.