After House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) crossed the Capitol to meet with Senate Republicans for the first time over lunch Wednesday, senators poured out of the gathering with a pep-rally-like enthusiasm, promising to back the new speaker as he takes his first steps.
But his pitch to aggressively pursue spending cuts and to decouple Israel and Ukraine aid have already divided the party across both chambers in ways that could make it difficult — if not impossible — to address critical issues like defending democracies abroad and keeping the federal government open.
The speaker’s opening moves have set him on a collision course with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), as both Republican leaders simultaneously struggle to manage their own fractious conferences. An ideological conservative who has staunchly sided with former president Donald Trump after both were elected to national office in 2016, Johnson’s brand of conservatism largely aligns with the right-most wing budding in the Senate Republican conference that McConnell has often clashed with.
McConnell — an 81-year-old Republican of a different political generation than Johnson, 51, with a reputation for fiercely pursuing party goals — has in recent years broken with orthodoxy and sided with President Biden and the Senate Democratic majority on key domestic and international priorities. McConnell and much of his conference hope to pass bipartisan bills to fund the government and send aid to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan to defend their democracies.
But Johnson and his caucus passed a $14.3 billion aid package for Israel this week that lacked Ukraine funding, attaching a partisan measure beloved by many in his conference that would rescind thousands of new IRS employees provided for in Biden’s signature legislative achievement.
The new speaker suggested that if the Senate sends back an Israel aid bill that does not include spending cuts, he won’t put it on the floor.
“We have obligations and we have commitments and we want to protect and help and assist our friend Israel,” Johnson told reporters. “But we have to keep our own house in order as well.”
The bill, which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says would add to the deficit, has been declared dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate. McConnell has said he is in line with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) desire to pair billions in aid for Ukraine and Taiwan with the Israel funds, as long as U.S. border policy changes are included — suggesting Johnson may not receive much backup from his Senate counterparts.
“At the risk of repeating myself, the threats facing America and our allies are serious and they are intertwined,” McConnell said this week. “If we ignore that fact, we do so at our own peril.”
The end-of-year rush to address myriad must-pass legislation will test both Republican leaders as their conferences are guaranteed to clash in unforeseen ways this year. Johnson must compromise to get legislation through the Democratic-controlled Senate, but when his predecessor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), did so to pay the country’s debts and keep the government open earlier this year, House Republicans ousted him and McConnell faced growing skepticism from his right flank.
In a move to appease his far-right flank’s demands, Johnson is considering pushing for spending cuts in a short-term funding resolution that must pass two weeks from now to avoid a government shutdown. If Johnson adopts that proposal it would be a non-starter for Senate Democrats and many Republicans who have found bipartisan agreement on how to fund the government.
There are many other reauthorizations Congress must address by the end of the year, including the farm bill, federal aviation, a Pentagon spending bill and legislation on foreign intelligence surveillance.
How each leader handles these hurdles over the next few weeks has high stakes for both of them.
McConnell, who has a reputation for keeping a tight grip over his conference, has faced sharp criticism from some of his more conservative members in recent weeks who are urging him to back Johnson more forcefully instead of pushing to tie Ukraine aid with Israel funds. He is also struggling to address growing furor in his conference over Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) embargo on military nominees, which spilled out into a messy Republican-on-Republican conflict on the Senate floor this week.
“I think McConnell’s position is very, very unpopular,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), long an antagonist of McConnell, told reporters this week, referring to the leader’s support for Ukraine aid. “I think ultimately [it] will fail or bring down the speaker, which I don’t think is a good idea.”
This puts pressure on McConnell not to provide Republican votes to pass any compromise legislation through the Democratic-controlled Senate that doesn’t have Johnson’s blessing.
“I am hopeful that deference will be paid to the House,” said Sen. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.).
Johnson has far less leeway with his own members, who have already shown their willingness to push out a leader over personal vendettas and for straying from conservative orthodoxy, and who have yet to overcome the deep tensions that were exposed during the three-week speakership fight.
The House spent Wednesday voting on whether to expel embattled Rep. George Santos in a move led by five of his fellow New York Republicans, while Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) has led a campaign to shame fellow Republicans who refused to go along with her attempt to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) for her views on the war in Gaza, telling Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) to “shut up” and calling him “Colonel Sanders.”
Johnson made clear to Republican senators this week that funding for Ukraine, which has long been unpopular among Republican voters but is a top priority for McConnell, cannot be attached to an Israel aid bill in the House or he risks losing his majority. Johnson told them that he would move a separate Ukraine aid bill afterward, as long as it came with tough reforms to border policy, which McConnell has also backed.
“He cannot get his majority to pass them together,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) “He said over and over: ‘Listen, for me it’s just numbers — I cannot do them together.’”
And House Republicans are incredibly wary of being steamrolled by the Senate. Republicans have largely agreed that they should send the most conservative version of a bill — in large part because it’s the only way to ensure passage through their razor-thin four vote margin — knowing full well that negotiations between both chambers would eventually result in a more watered-down, but still conservative, version of their proposal that ends up on the president’s desk.
“If someone wants another dollar for Ukraine, they gotta come make the case to me, and that includes Mitch McConnell,” Roy said. “He might think he can do his old guard steamroll crap through town, but I think the signals that are being sent over the last year is that there’s a new day dawning in Washington, D.C., and Mitch McConnell, frankly, it’s going to blow past him. It’s going to be up to the rest of the Senate to figure it out.”
Johnson, who brings an affable positivity to the hardest job in Washington, complimented McConnell and his team when he addressed them this week — although he was introduced to the group by occasional McConnell critic Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). McConnell stayed quiet during the meeting.
“Unlike me, there’s not a rough edge on him,” Ron Johnson said of the new speaker.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said he believed McConnell and Mike Johnson were more in sync than they might appear, and have spoken at least three times since Johnson took the job. McConnell and Johnson met privately for 45 minutes before the lunch, a McConnell aide said, kicking off their regular standing meeting.
“He knows the limitations of Mike’s ability given what he’s working with and he knows his own,” Cramer said of McConnell. “The perception that somehow there’s this clash between the two [leaders] is really more of a clash between the institutions.”
The Senate’s defense hawks were also happy to hear Johnson say he did want to pass a Ukraine aid bill — so long as it contained U.S. border provisions — given how much House Republicans have turned away from the war-torn nation.
Many House Republicans do not know which path Johnson will choose if a bill aiding Israel comes back from the Senate without the IRS repeal, or with Ukraine aid tacked on. If both chambers conference and agree on a compromise, does Johnson put it on the floor and risk irking Republicans who want a more conservative bill or will he prevent it from ever receiving a vote? Johnson has suggested he won’t put forward a bill without the IRS provision — a move that could cost him his job.
“There is such a great feeling of esprit de corps amongst House Republicans,” Johnson said hours before the bill passed. “We are not only unified, we are energized.”
With a little over a week into his new job as speaker, Johnson has also already faced the challenge McCarthy found difficult to navigate: appeasing warring factions within the conference on spending. While Republicans agree with making cuts, how and where to apply them has inflamed tensions between moderate and far-right factions.
Laying out an ambitious schedule to tackle funding the government for a full year when campaigning for speaker, Johnson already missed the mark after having to pull consideration of a transportation appropriation bill. New York Republicans are keen on ensuring that Amtrak, a major mode of transportation in the northeast, does not face significant cuts. Other Republicans worry that proposals to slash housing will negatively affect promises made to districts that more housing projects would be coming. And the House Freedom Caucus keeps insisting on ensuring all those proposed cuts stay in the bill.
The remaining bills that the House must pass are the most controversial. Two are still stuck in committee because internal Republican disputes on policy won’t allow them to move them to the floor. And House Republicans have been unable to resolve differences that led to the failure to pass an agriculture bill on the floor that is riddled with far-right priorities, including federally banning abortion pills and slashing funding that helps poor women feed their children.
“Well I’m from Louisiana, so I describe everything in either football or hurricane metaphors,” Johnson said when asked what his first few days as speaker had been like. “Let me say this is like an F5 hurricane. It’s been a whirlwind, but in a great way.”