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Mike Johnson: Republicans Got a Speaker Elected. Now Begins the Hard Part

In the end, the longest House leadership conflict of modern times ended the way wars sometimes do, with both sides losing the stomach to keep fighting.

Congressman Mike Johnson was elected the 56th speaker of the House of Representatives on Wednesday with cheers, standing ovations and smiles from his Republican colleagues that belied the seething tensions that had divided the party for the past three weeks.

The mild-mannered, bespectacled Louisianan prevailed where the three previous Speaker-designees did not as much for what he wasn’t, as what he was.

He wasn’t part of the existing Republican House leadership, whose top three officeholders – Kevin McCarthy, Steve Scalise and Tom Emmer – had been rejected by hardline conservatives over the past three weeks.

He wasn’t an ideological bomb-thrower like Jim Jordan, who was beloved by Donald Trump and the party’s populist right but resented by centrists and institutionalists whose legislative work frequently had been derailed by the Ohioan’s political brinkmanship.

Instead, Mr Johnson, the former chair of the House’s arch-conservative Republican Study Committee, was trusted by the party’s right-wing without the baggage that made enemies elsewhere.

He has taken controversial positions – supporting a nationwide abortion ban, backing Mr Trump’s efforts to reverse the 2020 election results and fighting against gay marriage rights – but has done so quietly and, for the most part, outside the view of television cameras.

And his lack of ambition from the outset, by not entering his name as a Speaker candidate until the third contest, may have made him the perfect vessel for Republicans wishing to move past weeks of political trauma and given him the ability to win votes without making specific concessions or commitments.

If any Republican did have issue with Mr Johnson, they showed no interest in raising them.

Congressman Ken Buck, for instance, had strenuously objected to Mr Scalise and Mr Jordan for their refusal to acknowledge Joe Biden’s presidential victory.

He voted for Johnson – an architect of Mr Trump’s multi-state legal challenge to the 2020 election – on Wednesday without objection.

Nancy Mace, the South Carolina wildcard who helped sink Mr McCarthy, lavished Mr Johnson with praise.

“I’m clearly not going to agree with him on every issue,” she told reporters at the Capitol. “I just want someone who’s going to be honest and tell the truth.”

To succeed as Speaker, Mr Johnson is going to have to do more than that, however.

Once the cheering and applause die down, the new Speaker will have a busy legislative agenda to address with little time to do it.

The Biden administration and its allies in the Senate are pressing for a multi-billion dollar military aid bill for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan.

And a temporary funding measure is set to expire on 17 November, triggering a government shutdown unless Congress takes action.

In a letter to his Republican colleagues as part of his speakership bid, Mr Johnson said another temporary funding bill may be necessary to buy Congress more time to pass its annual appropriations.

He also acknowledged the need to negotiate – “from a position of strength” – with Democrats in the Senate and the Biden White House.

It is during negotiations with Democrats that Mr Johnson’s speakership will be put to the test.

Mr McCarthy’s fate was sealed when his party’s right flank felt he caved to Democrats in a May deal to raise the cap on new US national debt and when he temporarily avoided an October government shutdown without winning any new concessions.

Mr Johnson may have more latitude with his party’s right-wingers given his established ties to them, but at some point the strategic and ideological divisions within the party will again be tested.

Mr Johnson will have to decide when to stop pushing and accept an agreement with the Democrats who share control of the levels of power in Washington.

Can he sell whatever agreement he reaches to the rest of his party?

And will Republicans change the rules that allowed just a handful of them to join with Democrats to sink Mr McCarthy?

Can the norms that House Republicans had previously abided by – that they support the party in procedural votes and rally behind the leadership selected by a majority of their ranks – be restored?

Can the Republicans in the House demonstrate that they have the capacity to govern?

Those questions have not been resolved by Mr Johnson’s election, no matter how many times Republican stood on Wednesday with feel-good applause for the various combatants in the fight over the past few weeks.

Mr Johnson in his letter seemed to acknowledge the work ahead for Republicans.

“Governing well will ensure that we meet the unprecedented challenges of today and expand our majority next year,” he wrote.

When they head to the voting booths a year from now, Americans – who have only casually been following this three-week Washington drama – may have long forgotten the details of this speakership battle.

But if Republicans can’t sort through their internal conflicts, and those differences continue to resurface and cause disruptions and acrimony, the American public will take notice.

Source : BBC