The second longest stretch in American history during which the House of Representatives has gone without a speaker is finally over.1 But while the speaker race has ended, the ill will caused by deep divisions in the Republican Party may not be over yet.
It’s not hard to understand why, after three weeks of futility, Republicans closed ranks around Representative Mike Johnson (R-LA) as the next Speaker of the House. The civil war within the Republican Party broke out with four major issues on the table — the looming deadline to fund the government, the war in Ukraine, the crisis at the border and, most recently, the war in Gaza. Any one of those would have highlighted the importance of a functioning Congress; the combination made the Republican dysfunction all the more perilous. Even Republicans were saying that the speaker race “makes us look like a bunch of idiots.”
In the end, Donald Trump weighed in big time — killing Representative Tom Emmer’s (R-MN) bid and endorsing Johnson. Hardliners and institutionalists who had opposed Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) folded and voted for Mike Johnson.
In recent surveys, 57% of Americans said that not having a speaker was hurting the government’s ability to function; 64% said they would accept a speaker they didn’t like to keep the government functioning normally; and 67% said that Congress needed to elect a speaker “as soon as possible.” These numbers reflected more than the concerns of Democrats and Independents; solid majorities of Republicans and conservatives also endorsed all three propositions.
In the near term, Speaker Johnson will face at least four big challenges: keeping the government open, aid to Ukraine, aid to Israel, and the crisis at the southern border. The new speaker is among the most conservative members of the House Republican caucus and led efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in four key swing states. But with a government shutdown looming on November 17 and scant prospects of reaching agreement on most appropriations bills before this deadline, he will have to choose between another continuing resolution to keep the government open — an option that conservatives have previously opposed — and a shutdown that most Americans don’t want. According to a Monmouth University poll released on September 27, 64% of Americans want members of Congress whose views on the budget they endorse to compromise to avert a shutdown, rather than sticking to their principles and triggering a shutdown. But Democrats favored compromise by an overwhelming majority of 76% to 21% while Republicans were split almost evenly, 50% to 46%. And 52% of Republicans who identified as ideological conservatives wanted their representatives to stick to their principles on spending, whatever the consequences, compared to only 26% of liberal Democrats. This may explain why the hardliners have more power than their numbers suggest — in their districts compromise is not very popular, especially among primary voters.
Despite these sentiments, the early indications are that that the speaker’s conservative supporters in the House will go along with a continuing resolution because they trust his commitment to pass 12 separate appropriations bills rather than yet another huge “omnibus” bill that they despise.
Aid to Ukraine is another issue that will challenge the new speaker. A majority of Americans favors continued assistance to Kyiv, but 60% of Republicans and 61% of ideological conservatives oppose it, as does Rep. Johnson himself. Although most Senate Republicans support President Biden’s request for this aid, opposition among House Republicans is high and rising. It remains to be seen whether Rep. Johnson can persuade his colleagues to go along with a package deal that includes aid for Ukraine and also toughens border security — and whether he will even try to do so.
The easiest challenge may be aid to Israel. Soon after the new speaker was elected, the House passed a resolution in support of Israel by an overwhelming vote of 412 to 10. But this resolution needs to be turned into an appropriation, so there are still roadblocks ahead. And any military aid, whether to Ukraine or Israel, will doubtlessly come up against the fourth major challenge: the view of many on the right that America is fighting its own war on the southern border and that resources will be needed there.
In the long term it is hard to say whether weeks of confusion and controversy among Republicans will have an impact on next year’s elections, which could upend the Republicans’ current razor-thin majority in the House. Prior to the weekslong controversy over Republican leadership, Democrats were feeling hopeful about taking back the House. They only need to flip five seats, and Republicans hold about a dozen seats in California and New York that are up for grabs. Favorable rulings on redistricting in Alabama and New York and the fact that 2024 is a presidential election year with high turnout add to the possibility that Democrats will take over.
Whether the Republican mess will be remembered a year from now and whether it will have an impact on voters’ decisions is anyone’s guess. But two things are clear: most Americans have been paying attention, and they have reached conclusions that are not helpful to the Republican cause. According to an Economist/YouGov poll, 51% of voters think that Democrats are currently more united than Republicans, compared to 15% who believe the reverse. Independents concur by 38% to 9%, and moderates by 52% to 8%. Even pluralities of Republicans and conservatives agree. Republicans have a year to reverse these impressions, a task made harder by their divisions over the budget and Ukraine.
Speaker Johnson can dial down the dissension and the chaos in hopes of making the recent mess a distant memory. On the one hand, his inexperience in the Congress may make this difficult; on the other, his low-key personality may be just what is needed to calm things down. But if he uses his new role to pursue some of the hard-right policies he has espoused in the past — especially his support for a nationwide ban on abortion — he will restart the civil war in his party that his counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has so skillfully avoided, opening the door to a possible Democratic House majority in 2025.
- The longest was before the Civil War when it took 133 ballots to get a speaker for the 34th Congress.