Oct 26, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Biden's tough choice on Mike Johnson: Friend or foe?

mike johnson house speaker

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) gives his first comments as speaker of the House on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023 in Washington, DC. Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

President Biden is making subtle overtures to newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), indicating that he's willing to look past his election-denialism to keep the government open and provide funding for Ukraine and Israel.

Why it matters: The fate of Biden's immediate domestic and foreign agenda rests in the hand of a man who actively opposed the certification of his election.

  • That reality will force Biden to make a difficult and delicate decision: Does he treat Johnson as a friend or a foe?
  • The president's challenge is complicated by the cross-currents in Johnson's deeply divided party.
  • Many of the speaker's colleagues are opposed to compromising with the president on overall government spending and Ukraine funding.

Driving the news: Shortly after Johnson was elected, Biden called him to offer his congratulations.

  • The White House was quick with a statement to signal a willingness to work together. "There should be mutual effort to find common ground wherever we can," Biden said.
  • Biden is asking Congress for $50 billion in domestic spending, on top of the $106 billion request for the border and international priorities last week.
  • The federal government will run out of money in mid-November unless Congress and the president reach a deal.

Between the lines: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who supports Ukraine funding, also reached out to Johnson, announcing on X that "we will be meeting soon to discuss the growing list of important business Congress must address."

The big picture: House Republicans may have a new speaker, but they still have an old problem: Their party doesn't control the Senate or the White House.

  • A vocal minority of the party appears unwilling to accept that political reality and is opposed to compromising with the Senate or the White House.
  • That will force Johnson to make a similar decision to the one that led to former Speaker Kevin McCarthy's historic downfall, when the former speaker used Democratic votes to pass legislation that was unacceptable to many of his own colleagues.
  • But Johnson is also charged with protecting centrist Republicans, including 18 who represent Biden districts. They have a bias toward compromise.

Flashback: McCarthy forced Biden to the table on a debt default deal this spring, essentially inviting himself to the White House for direct one-on-one talks.

  • Many Republicans view the current situation in a similar light. Biden is asking Congress for something – funding for Ukraine – that many of them aren't inclined to give him. They feel they have the upper hand.

The intrigue: While Biden's White House talked about the importance of governing, Biden's campaign took a different direction.

  • "Now, Donald Trump has his loyal foot soldier to ban abortion nationwide, lead efforts to deny free and fair election results, gut Social Security and Medicare," the Biden-Harris campaign blasted out.

What we're watching: Biden has no relationship with Johnson.

  • Their only known interaction happened when Biden gave Johnson --and other Louisiana lawmakers – a shoutout at the LSU NCAA women's basketball championship ceremony.
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