Opinion: Speaker Mike Johnson sings ‘Kumbaya’ with the Democrats

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No one could have predicted that the worst Congress in memory would morph into the Kumbaya Congress. Or that Mike Johnson, the accidental House speaker from Louisiana, would transform from Trump puppet to statesman.

The two developments are related, of course. Congress was able to veer from the dangerous, dead-end course that the Republican-run House had it on for the past 16 months only once Johnson very belatedly took the keys from his MAGA allies and started driving events himself. Recognizing that he had no choice but to deal with the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Biden, Johnson helped pass overdue government funding last month and, in recent days, green-lighted votes reauthorizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and — finally! — approving aid to Ukraine to help it defend itself and the rest of Europe from a rapacious Russia.

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So, yes, we have a functioning Congress. Enjoy it while it lasts. Because it probably won’t exist after November’s election.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

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Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

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What we have for now is something remarkable, even historic: a coalition government in the House in which both parties are cooperating to enact crucial legislation. But a coalition government has never been the natural order of business in our two-party system, certainly not in these polarized times.

Usually when control of the White House, Senate and House is divided between the parties, Democrats and Republicans firmly exercise their respective levers of power, until one side relents or both compromise. When a House majority is united, it can run over the minority, and maximize its leverage against the Senate or White House.

But House Republicans aren’t united; they are a majority in name only. So lately, under Johnson, they have all but forfeited key powers and in effect shared governance with Democrats, whose votes are what keep the place running. Republicans simply can’t pass critical legislation on their own.

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Their paper-thin House majority is so riven — antigovernment hardliners squaring off against more moderate legislators, isolationist America Firsters versus Reaganesque internationalists — that it was dysfunctional from its start, in January 2023. It took Republicans an unprecedented 15 votes to elect a speaker, and 10 months later they ousted that leader and finally settled on the novice Johnson.

Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s sin in his tormentors’ view, aside from being utterly distrusted by them and Democrats alike, was to rely on Democrats’ votes to raise the nation’s debt ceiling and fund the government, averting defaults and shutdowns. Even so, McCarthy stuck with the usual divided-government playbook, compromising as little as possible with Democrats and poking them in the eye when he could, not least by opening a groundless impeachment inquiry against Biden.

Predictably, Johnson also has had to turn to Democrats for help. Yet Republican extremists, egged on by Donald Trump, are so emboldened after dumping McCarthy that they’ve become even more rebellious. Their cudgel over Johnson has been the rule that McCarthy unwisely acquiesced to in order to get the gavel: A single member can force a vote to unseat the speaker.

Here’s the crazy irony: The only way to actually sack the speaker is to rely on Democrats’ votes. Eight Republican mutineers ousted McCarthy thanks to the votes of all 208 Democrats present that October day; 210 Republicans voted to retain him.

Got that? The nuts oppose their speaker passing bills with Democrats’ support. Yet to dump him, they need Democrats’ support.

But now Democrats, fed up with the dysfunction, are willing to disarm the extremists. They detested McCarthy, but they don’t dislike Johnson. And now that Johnson has finally let Congress approve Biden’s request for aid to a desperate Ukraine (as well as Israel, Gaza and Taiwan), Democrats are poised to provide the votes to prevent his defenestration.

No less than former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Politico, “He was courageous. I can’t imagine that he won’t continue to be speaker.”

That Democrats would save a Republican speaker is almost inconceivable, and it’s the ultimate evidence that we’ve got a coalition government in the House.

There are other hugely significant breaks with historical practice. Traditionally, the majority tightly controls which important bills get to the floor for a vote and sets restrictive rules for debate. Majority party members learn on Day 1 that they must vote for rules, because the minority always opposes them. For more than two decades, the majority complied, but in the past year Republican rebels have killed seven of their leadership’s rules, blocking the bills and humiliating first McCarthy and then Johnson.

Lately, to foil them, Johnson and Democrats have done one of two things, both of them previously unthinkable. Johnson has resorted to a fast-track procedure that allows a bill to pass without a rule if it can get a two-thirds vote, and Democrats provide the needed votes. (That’s how the government got funded.) Or Democrats have supported the majority’s rule, offsetting Republican defections. (That’s how the Ukraine aid bill passed.)

The upshot is that Democrats are empowered like no House minority in memory. Republicans can pass all the red-meat bills for the MAGA base they want, like punitive measures on immigration or transgender issues, but the bills will die in the Senate. However, Democrats are in control when it comes to bills that must become law, such as on annual spending and debt increases, or should become law, such as aid to Ukraine.

Only by continuing this unorthodox bipartisanship will the House be able to, for example, fund the government for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 and avoid a pre-election shutdown. But it likely won’t persist after the election because either the more unified Democrats will win a majority, or more hard-line Republicans will be elected — and perhaps Trump, too — and the party will revert to obstructionist form.

For voters, the response should be obvious: Just elect more Democrats in November, and put them fully in charge.

@jackiekcalmes





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