As speaker of the House, Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., is one of the most powerful people in the country — on paper at least. As he settles into the role, though, it’s once again becoming clear how the position hasn’t translated into power for recent Republicans who’ve held the speaker’s gavel.
For proof of that, look to Johnson’s news conference Tuesday to discuss the progress (and I use that term loosely) that’s been made in the impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden. Standing alongside the chairs of the House Oversight Committee and the Judiciary Committee, Johnson said that as a constitutional lawyer (a term that he should use loosely) who served on then- President Donald Trump’s impeachment defense team both times, he had “lamented” the “brazenly political” and “meritless” impeachment charges Democrats brought.
In contrast, he claimed, the GOP’s impeachment efforts have been nothing but open and transparent, because, and I quote, “the Republican Party stands for the rule of law.”
Just at the surface level, Johnson’s implying that the House GOP’s response to the Trump impeachments shows its commitment to the rule of law is hilarious. So, too, is his claim that in the GOP investigation into Biden, Republicans are simply following the facts wherever they may lead. But it’s a song and dance Johnson has to perform if he wants to remain speaker.
House Republicans ended their 21-day civil war last month — not with a peace treaty but with a cease-fire — as Johnson won the support of his conference. That chaos left even the most die-hard conservatives licking their wounds and unwilling to challenge Johnson too forcefully. This honeymoon period even extended through Johnson’s working to pass a short-term funding bill with mostly Democratic votes, the sin that got his predecessor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., evicted from the speakership.
But their patience seems to be waning. Politico reported Thursday that “Johnson has antagonized conservatives most acutely by engaging in policy talks with fellow leaders, rather than pushing exclusively for base-pleasing wins that won’t survive in the Senate.” This particular bit of pique was exacerbated when Johnson told Senate Republicans that he’d rather extend current levels of government funding until next fall than risk a shutdown in an election year.
In other words, conservatives are mad at Johnson for trying to, well, do his job instead of pretending that any of the severe cuts that the House Freedom Caucus is demanding has a chance of becoming law. And so, much like McCarthy, he’s leaning into the Biden impeachment investigation as a way to appease what is now his right flank and, as a treat, is giving the Freedom Caucus and the heads of the investigating committees a little backing for their wild goose chase.
Even before the current troubles with conservatives, though, Johnson had been called out for being insufficiently committed to the impeachment cause. When The Washington Post reported last month that the impeachment inquiry’s momentum had slowed under Johnson’s tenure, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., whined that her ally McCarthy “believed in impeachment so much that he launched an inquiry without a floor vote, but you were told he was bad.” Johnson quickly came out to say that the impeachment effort has “my full and unwavering support.”
Smash cut to Johnson on Tuesday insisting not just that things are going just fine but that he, like House Oversight Committee chairman James Comer, R-Ky., is deeply bothered by the severity of the supposed crimes the Biden family has committed. With all of this work to stroke the far right’s ego, he has a tougher challenge approaching on the impeachment front. When McCarthy unilaterally announced the inquiry in September, it was seen as a desperate move to stave off the wolves at the door. He also knew there weren’t the votes in the conference to approve an inquiry given the skepticism among moderates and Republicans from districts that Biden won.
Now, though, as the Biden White House has begun to push back on some of the House’s requests, there’s talk about needing to hold a formal impeachment inquiry vote ahead of any potential court challenge. With no new evidence between now and when McCarthy first announced, that vote doesn’t seem like it has any more chance to succeed than it did in September.
Johnson has two options at this point. He can hold the vote knowing it will fail, damaging the House’s credibility in court but keeping up appearances with the pro-impeachment wing. Or he can burn his capital with moderates worried about losing their seats to persuade them to be team players — and still face the risk of failing on the House floor. All for an inquiry that he has admitted behind closed doors doesn’t have the evidence to actually justify impeachment. Not that he has the power to say that in public, of course.