Jan 11, 2024 - Politics & Policy

House members begin to game out a Mike Johnson ouster attempt

House Speaker Mike Johnson. Photo: Photographer: Graeme Sloan/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

House Republican hardliners' revolt against a party-line vote on Wednesday kicked off a flurry of speculation on Capitol Hill about whether Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is at risk of a removal effort just months into the job.

Why it matters: The ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy in October ground the House to a total halt for three weeks as Republicans cycled through three nominees before finally settling on the relatively unknown and untested Johnson.

  • Some Republicans are already expressing buyer's remorse, with Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) lamenting: "He should have never been hired."
  • "I don't think I'm in any jeopardy of being vacated. It's not something I walk around and think about," Johnson said in a Fox News appearance on Wednesday.

Driving the news: A dozen right-wing House Republicans blocked a package of their party's bills and ground the House floor to a sudden halt on Wednesday in protest of Johnson's spending deal with Senate Democrats.

  • It's a repeat of of what hardliners did under former Speaker McCarthy over his bipartisan debt ceiling deal – which ultimately foreshadowed his removal months later through a motion to vacate.
  • The move came as Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) has been flirting with the idea of trying to remove Johnson, saying in a radio interview on Tuesday: "If they totally botch [the appropriations bills] ... I don't know why we would keep him as speaker."
  • One Republican leadership ally described the revolt as a "shot across the bow."

By the numbers: Under a deal McCarthy made last January to become speaker, any single House member can force a vote on a motion to vacate.

  • With House Republicans holding 220 seats to Democrats' 213, they can afford only a handful of defections on a given party-line vote.
  • That margin will soon get even narrower with Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) leaving later this month, and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) is also working remotely until February.

What they're saying: Most lawmakers don't think Johnson is at imminent risk of removal – but they're proactively making the case for him to be kept on and gaming out how he might survive an attempted ouster.

  • "We've got a two-seat majority, this is a brand new speaker, we've got to ride the river with him for a little while," said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas).
  • Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) told reporters there is "little appetite" to remove Johnson – but, he added, "I didn't say there wouldn't be an effort to do a motion to vacate. I just don't think the House as a whole is going to accept that."

Zoom in: Womack predicted a fight over removing Johnson would differ in one key way from when all Democrats and eight Republicans voted to remove McCarthy.

  • "I think Democrats are as fed up with this as we are," he said. "I'd be very surprised if you see Democrats lock arms and join with non-sensical Republicans in vacating the chair."
  • "I could be wrong, but I don't think that's going to be the case," he added.

The other side: Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), a member of House Democratic leadership, isn't so sure, telling Axios "it's up to Johnson the same way it was up to McCarthy."

  • "We made it very clear through a number of channels that if Kevin was interested in preserving his speakership he was going to have to work with us, and he wasn't willing to," Kildee said. "He didn't want to."
  • "I think in the same scenario, we'd play by the same rules."
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