WASHINGTON ― The House selected Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., as its new speaker in a party-line vote on Wednesday.
Some Republican defense hawks struck a note of optimism following Johnson’s election, arguing his position representing a military-heavy district on the Armed Services Committee could help ameliorate some of the budget uncertainty generated by the recent turmoil within the GOP conference.
However, Johnson will face many of the same political dynamics that beguiled former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who was ousted at the behest of a small group of right-wing lawmakers in his own party.
McCarthy’s ouster ground business in the House to a halt for three weeks, raising questions as to whether Congress can fund the federal government — including the Defense Department — and pass the White House’s proposed $106 billion supplemental spending package, which includes more military aid for Ukraine, Israel and Indo-Pacific security partners.
In a floor speech following his election, Johnson addressed U.S. allies, acknowledging the world has “been watching this drama play out for the last three weeks.”
“We want our allies around the world to know that this body of lawmakers is reporting again to our duty stations,” said Johnson. “Let the enemies of freedom around the world hear us loud and clear. The people’s house is back in business.”
House Rules Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., who also sits on the defense appropriations committee, praised Johnson’s defense policy credentials.
“I feel better because nothing’s moving until we get a speaker,” Cole told Defense News. “I take a great deal of solace from the fact that Mike represents a military district: Barksdale Air Force Base.”
Barksdale Air Force Base is the headquarters of Air Force Global Strike Command. Johnson’s rural Louisiana district is also home to Fort Johnson, the Army’s Joint Readiness Training Center and the Louisiana National Guard’s Minden Training Center.
“He’s familiar with the issues,” Cole said. He added that the Armed Services Committee Johnson sits on “is a well-run, very bipartisan committee.”
House Armed Services Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., declined to comment.
The Armed Services Committee in June advanced its $874 billion annual defense policy bill in a 58-1 vote. The defense policy bill is usually a bipartisan product, but the House narrowly passed it 219-210 in July mostly along party lines.
Democrats defected in droves after Republican leaders added several amendments from the right-wing Freedom Caucus that would overturn the Pentagon’s abortion leave policy, restrict medical care for transgender troops, eliminate military diversity initiatives and bar the Defense Department from implementing President Joe Biden’s climate change initiatives.
Democrats cited the partisan defense policy bill as part of their reason for voting to oust McCarthy in an effort spearheaded by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. Gaetz instigated the vote to remove McCarthy after the former speaker passed a bipartisan, short-term spending bill earlier this month to avoid a government shutdown.
That bill expires Nov. 17, once again raising the specter of a shutdown in the near future unless Congress passes its appropriations legislation or another short-term spending bill.
If Congress does not pass its fiscal 2024 appropriations legislation by January, a one-year continuing resolution with a 1% cut to all federal agencies — including the Defense Department — goes into effect, per the May debt ceiling agreement.
A one-year continuing resolution would place major constraints on the Pentagon’s ability to procure big-ticket items like aircraft and ships, even as numerous shipbuilding programs are already falling behind.
Cole said this would constitute “a failure of Congress to do its job.”
“That is not what you want to do right now,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous world.”
Ukraine aid uncertainty
Johnson in his speech said “we are at a time of extraordinary crisis right now, and the world needs us to be strong.”
“Turmoil and violence have rocked the Middle East and eastern Europe — we all know it — and tensions continue to build in the Indo-Pacific,” he added. “The country demands strong leadership of this body and we must not waver.”
He vowed to take up legislation supporting Israel, but has so far declined to answer whether he would put additional Ukraine aid on the floor. The Biden administration has less than $5.5 billion in funds to continue transferring weapons from U.S. stockpiles to Kyiv.
Notably, McCarthy dropped $6 billion in Ukraine aid from the short-term spending bill amid growing opposition to continued arms transfers to Kyiv within the House Republican caucus.
The Senate is moving forward with a massive, bipartisan, all-in-one defense spending package based on the supplemental request Biden sent to Congress last week. Biden’s proposed package includes $44.4 billion to continue arming Ukraine against Russia’s invasion through the U.S. presidential election and $14.3 billion to arm Israel as it bombs Palestinians in the Gaza Strip following Hamas’ massacre and abduction of Israelis earlier this month.
Republicans have demanded separate votes on Ukraine and Israel aid, with roughly half the House Republican caucus now opposed to continued assistance for Kyiv.
“We’re going to discuss the supplemental,” Defense Appropriations Chairman Ken Calvert, R-Calif., told Defense News. “Obviously it’s a big number, and we’ve got to look at it carefully.”
“Israel is our primary focus,” he said, adding “we need to have a discussion about Ukraine.”
House Democrats have called for a combined Ukraine-Israel aid package. They have also objected to Johnson’s speakership over his vote against certifying Biden’s 2020 election victory.
Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, the House’s No. 3 Democrat, called Johnson “the most important architect of the electoral objections” to a mingle of jeers and applause throughout the chamber.
Johnson led more than 100 GOP lawmakers in 2020 filing an amicus brief in a failed lawsuit that asked the Supreme Court to overturn the election results. The lawsuit was filed by Texas and other Republican-led states.
A reporter on Tuesday asked Johnson about his role in trying to overturn the 2020 election results. He shook his head as Republican lawmakers behind him booed and Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., yelled “shut up.”
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.