Insanity is said to be doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results. But perhaps a dose of insanity is healthy when it comes to understanding the Republicans who control the House of Representatives. In September Kevin McCarthy, then the Speaker of the House, cut a deal to avoid a government shutdown by defying far-right Republicans and relying heavily on Democratic votes to pass a short-term funding bill. He was summarily defenestrated. Six weeks later Mike Johnson, his replacement, defied hardliners and relied on Democrats to pass a temporary funding bill. Yet, for the moment, his job is safe. What gives?
The explanation has a lot to do with the chaos that ensued after Mr McCarthy’s ejection from the speakership by majority vote—the first in American history. The deal that he cut maintained government funding for roughly six weeks. About half of that time was wasted as Republicans squabbled among themselves about selecting a replacement. That left little time to haggle with Democrats, who control both the Senate and the White House, over a long-term solution. Mr Johnson recognised that he needed more time and that his party would get the blame for a shutdown, so he moved a short-term funding package similar to the one that led to his predecessor’s ousting.
Ninety-three Republican representatives—about two-fifths of the troops—voted against the bill. A similar number dissented against Mr McCarthy. But so far Republicans have held back on ejecting Mr Johnson for the same sin. “Johnson’s going to have a longer leash,” says Kevin Kosar, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank. “What can he really do? And how long can he do it before they come for him? It’s not clear.”
The House Freedom Caucus, which counts dozens of hardline Republicans as members, denounced the deal “as it contains no spending reductions, no border security, and not a single meaningful win for the American People”. Yet the group added that “we remain committed to working with Speaker Johnson.” Even they are not keen to endure another bout of chaos and embarrassment.
Some of it is a matter of personality, too. Mr Johnson was a genteel, largely unknown representative from Louisiana; his prominent predecessor had developed toxic relationships with many Democrats and Republicans over the years. Some of those resentments persist. On November 14th, the day the House passed its latest spending legislation, a Republican lawmaker who helped remove Mr McCarthy from power accused him of elbowing him in a hallway. Mr McCarthy pled ignorance: “If I kidney-punched someone, they would be on the ground.” Mr Johnson’s honeymoon may be ending, but at least the marriage has not degenerated into McCarthyesque plate-throwing.
The Johnson bill includes several small but meaningful distinctions. Mr McCarthy’s reprieve had funding expire less than a week before Thanksgiving, which was suboptimal for lawmakers who like their families. In the holiday spirit, Mr Johnson did not want a funding extension so short that it created a new deadline before Christmas— “a terrible way to run a railroad”, in his words. His temporary measure extends funding into the new year. Its expiry would not turn the federal government off all at once. Money would stop flowing to parts of the federal government on January 19th 2024; the rest would be cut off on February 2nd.
Democrats had been braced for much worse. Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, said Mr Johnson’s bill left him cautiously “heartened”. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, even called the short-term legislation “a very big win” because it kept funding at the (arguably profligate) levels set when Democrats had full control of government. That sort of praise does not help Mr Johnson’s relationship with conservatives.
The real challenge comes in January, when Mr Johnson will have to corral his raucous Republican caucus and reach a long-term spending deal with Democrats. The ramifications are not just over political embarrassment or even the annoyance of a federal shutdown. The White House’s request for $106bn in military funding for Ukraine, Israel, the Indo-Pacific and border security remains stalled. Solid majorities in the House and Senate support further assistance to Ukraine, the largest beneficiary and the country in greatest need of additional aid. Mr Schumer hopes to bring up the package after Thanksgiving, but Mr Johnson has said he wants to “bifurcate” Israel and Ukraine.
Mr Johnson’s election has not proved a boon for America’s allies. Although the new speaker has adopted some pro-Ukraine rhetoric in recent weeks, he had consistently voted against sending aid to the country. Mr Johnson has alluded to more oversight of support for Ukraine, which may be an unnecessary but acceptable compromise. Despite being a consistent supporter of Israel, he also suggested pairing new military aid with spending cuts at the Internal Revenue Service, a long-running Republican bugbear. This unserious offer—which would actually increase deficits—is not encouraging.
The uncertainty is worrying. “You’ve got a lot of Republicans who I know, know, in their hearts and minds—they support Ukraine. But how do they deal with Trump and his shall-we-say rather enthusiastic supporters?” said Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services committee. “There’s not much policy here and a lot of politics.” ■