With US House speaker fight over, the real chaos begins

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) leaves a House Republican conference meeting in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

The unprecedented three-week Republican search for a new House speaker ended Wednesday. Now the real chaos begins.

In the end, GOP members unified behind Rep. Mike Johnson, a little-known social conservative who supports a national abortion ban, opposes federal recognition of same-sex marriages and led efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.


It should serve as a stark reminder that much of the nation doesn’t share the political values of the Bay Area and most of California. That Donald Trump is now fully in control of the Republican Party. And that any hopes that moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats could somehow unify behind a speaker and work on bipartisan solutions were fantasy.

Johnson, in his first remarks after the vote electing him speaker, promised Republicans would “serve the people of this country. We’re going to restore their faith in this Congress.”

But it’s doubtful he means all the people. It remains to be seen whether he will work with Democrats or without them. Whether he will work with all Republicans or only those who hew to the expanding MAGA wing of the party.

Whether he plans to negotiate with President Biden, a tactic that led to the ouster of Johnson’s predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, or work to block compromise.

Johnson emphasized that “the world is on fire, we stand by our ally Israel.” But noticeably absent was any mention of Ukraine, for which President Biden is seeking more funding that Johnson has opposed. That fight will be part of the upcoming budget battle as the federal government faces a shutdown Nov. 17, when the short-term deal President Biden signed at the end of September expires.

The election of Johnson demonstrates how far right the House has swung. Fearful of primary challenges from the conservative wing, moderate House members, who are receding in numbers, could only stand their ground so long.

Last week, the moderates blocked the bid by Rep. Jim Jordan, a Trump loyalist and election-denier, to become speaker. But they ran out of energy to withstand the latest right-wing maneuver. So, in Johnson, they ended up with another Trump loyalist and election-denier.

It was the culmination of an amazing right-wing power play. In the narrowly divided House three weeks ago, the ultraconservatives, led by Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, leveraged just eight GOP votes and Democrats’ disdain for McCarthy to oust the sitting speaker.

They then headed off two other Republican nominees for speaker, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Minority Whip Tom Emmer of Indiana, never bringing their candidacies to a floor vote.

The speakership battle would have gone on indefinitely unless moderate Republicans were willing to strike a deal with Democrats or acquiesce to the hard conservatives. For most moderates, the former would have been political-primary suicide. So eventually they caved to the latter.

In the end, House Republicans landed on Johnson, who has no experience in top-tier GOP leadership. As a result, a minority of the House, a subset of the narrow Republican majority, has taken control of the lower chamber of Congress. And that Republican majority exists only because of Republican gerrymandering across the country, made possible because the GOP outmaneuvered Democrats in state legislative races.

For Californians, the politics of the Republican-controlled House will feel foreign. Right now, they have a backstop in the razor-thin Democratic control of the Senate and their leader in the White House.

Democrats are fortunate that, at least so far, their 80-year-old president has remained healthy. And they’re lucky that the late-Sen. Dianne Feinstein came from a blue state where the governor could appoint her successor.

But as long as Republicans control the House — and Trump-backed conservatives are calling the shots — the Washington standoff will continue. The no-compromise speakership fight might have been just a warmup.