WASHINGTON — Republicans eagerly elected Rep. Mike Johnson as House speaker Wednesday, elevating a deeply conservative but lesser-known leader to the seat of U.S. power and ending for now the political chaos in their majority.
Johnson of Louisiana swept on the first ballot with support from all Republicans anxious to put the past weeks of tumult behind and get on with the business of governing.
Johnson replaces Kevin McCarthy, who was ousted in early October.
A lower-ranked member of the House GOP leadership team, Johnson becomes the fourth Republican nominee in what has become an almost absurd cycle of political infighting since McCarthy’s ouster as GOP factions jockey for power. While not the party’s top choice for the gavel, the deeply religious and even-keeled Johnson has few foes and an important GOP backer: Donald Trump.
Johnson, a lawyer specializing in constitutional issues, had rallied Republicans around Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.
“I think he’s gonna be a fantastic speaker,” Trump said Wednesday at the New York courthouse where the former president, who is now the Republican front-runner for president in 2024, is on trial over charges of business fraud.
Trump said he hadn’t heard “one negative comment” about Johnson. “Everybody likes him.”
As the House convened at noon, Johnson, who won the GOP majority behind closed doors but still needed all Republicans in the public roll call to win the gavel, said he felt “very good.”
Three weeks on without a House speaker, the Republicans have been wasting their majority status — a maddening embarrassment to some, democracy in action to others, but not at all how the House is expected to function.
Far-right members have refused to accept a more traditional speaker, and moderate conservatives don’t want a hard-liner. While Johnson had no opponents during the private roll call late Tuesday, some two dozen Republicans did not vote, more than enough to sink his nomination.
But overnight the endorsements for Johnson started pouring in, including from failed speaker hopefuls — Rep. Jim Jordan, the hard-charging Judiciary Committee chairman gave his support, as did Majority Leader Steve Scalise, the fellow Louisiana congressman who stood behind Johnson after he won the nomination.
“Mike! Mike! Mike!” lawmakers chanted at a news conference after the late-night internal vote, surrounding Johnson and posing for selfies in a show of support.
Anxious and exhausted, Republican lawmakers are desperately trying to move on.
“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.”
Johnson’s rise comes after a tumultuous month, capped by a head-spinning Tuesday that within a span of a few hours saw one candidate, Rep. Tom Emmer, the GOP whip, nominated then quickly withdraw when it became clear he would be the third candidate unable to secure enough support from GOP colleagues after Trump bashed his nomination.
“He wasn’t MAGA,” said Trump, referring to his Make America Great Again campaign slogan.
Elevating Johnson to speaker would give Louisianans two high-ranking GOP leaders, putting him above Scalise, who was rejected by hard-liners in his own bid as speaker.
Deeply religious, Johnson is affable and well-liked, with a fiery belief system. Colleagues swiftly started giving their support.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who led a small band of hard-liners to engineer McCarthy’s ouster, posted on social media that “Mike Johnson won’t be the Speaker the Swamp wants but, he is the Speaker America needs.”
With Republicans controlling the House only 221-212 over Democrats, any GOP nominee can afford just a few detractors to win the gavel.
“Democracy is messy sometimes, but it is our system,” Johnson said after coming in second to Emmer. “We’re going to restore your trust in what we do here.”
Republicans have been flailing all month, unable to conduct routine business as they fight among 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.
Many hard-liners have been resisting a leader who voted for the budget deal 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 has been led by a 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 — wanted 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.