WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans late Tuesday chose Rep. Mike Johnson as their latest candidate for House speaker, hours after a previous candidate, Rep. Tom Emmer, bowed out in the face of opposition from Donald Trump and Republican hardliners Party had abruptly withdrawn.
Johnson of Louisiana, a lower-ranking member of the House GOP leadership team, becomes the fourth nominee after Emmer and the others failed in an almost absurd cycle of political infighting since Kevin McCarthy was toppled as the GOP caucus for power.
Because they refuse to unify, far-right members will not accept a more traditional speaker and more moderate members will not want a hardliner. Johnson immediately faced a closed-door roll call to test his support ahead of a House vote in which he will need nearly all Republicans to win the gavel.
Three weeks later, the Republicans are squandering their majority status – for some a crazy embarrassment, for others a living democracy, but not at all the way the House of Representatives is supposed to function.
“Pretty sad commentary on current governance,” said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark. “Maybe we can do it on the fourth, fifth, sixth or tenth try.”
After retiring Tuesday afternoon, Emmer quickly left the building where he had met privately with Republicans, but later returned to his offices at the Capitol. He said Trump’s opposition had no impact on his decision to withdraw.
“I made my decision based on my relationship with the conference,” he said, referring to the GOP majority. He said he would support whoever emerges as the new candidate. “We’ll get it done.”
As Trump left the New York courtroom where he is accused of economic fraud, Trump said his “non-endorsement” must have had an impact on Emmer’s bid.
“He wasn’t MAGA,” said Trump, the party’s front-runner for the 2024 presidential election, referring to his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.”
House Republicans returned behind closed doors, where they are spending much of their time desperately searching for a leader who can unite the factions, reopen the House and get the U.S. Congress functioning again.
Attention quickly turned to Johnson of Louisiana, a member of party leadership who was the second-highest voter in Tuesday’s internal votes. In the evening vote he received 128 votes.
Johnson, a lawyer specializing in constitutional issues, had mobilized Republicans behind Trump’s legal efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.
But the hardliners quickly rejected Johnson’s offer and a new list of candidates emerged within minutes of the deadline that evening. Among them was Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, a Trump ally who came third in the morning vote, and several others. McCarthy, who did not take part in the election, surprisingly won 43 votes.
“We are at the same impasse,” said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the chairman of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus.
But Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., one of the hardliners, said: “This is what democracy looks like.”
One idea that has been floating around, first reported by NBC News, was to reinstate McCarthy as speaker along with hardline Rep. Jim Jordan in a new leadership role.
It was intended as a way to unify the conference, MPs said, but they were unsure whether it would materialize.
“I think sometimes it’s good to have fresh ideas and fresh people,” said Rep. Victoria Spartz, R-Ind.
Emmer, of Minnesota, came out on top in a private morning vote among a hodgepodge of mostly lesser-known members of Congress seeking the speakership, an influential position second only to the presidency.
While Emmer won a simple majority — 117 votes — in a closed-door roll call, he lost more than two dozen Republicans, leaving him well short of what would be needed in an upcoming vote in the House.
But Trump allies, including influential far-right instigator Steve Bannon, were critical of Emmer. Some point to his support of a same-sex marriage initiative and perceived criticism of the former president. Among the far-right groups pressuring lawmakers over the speaker’s vote, some were quick to attack Emmer.
Johnson, who came a solid second in the morning vote, offered Emmer his full support, saying: “What we need to do in this room is unite and govern again.”
Others were eliminated in multiple rounds of voting, including Donalds and Rep. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, a conservative leader and former McDonald’s franchise owner who harassed his colleagues with hamburgers who asked them for support. Reps. Austin Scott of Georgia, Jack Bergman of Michigan, Pete Sessions of Texas, Gary Palmer of Alabama and Dan Meuser of Pennsylvania also dropped out.
With top successors, Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Trump-backed Jordan, rejected, there is no longer an obvious choice for the post.
With Republicans controlling the House of Representatives by a vote of 221 to 212 over Democrats, any Republican candidate can afford to have just a few critics win the gavel.
Republicans have been flailing all month, unable to conduct their routine business as they face daunting challenges among themselves.
The federal government risks a shutdown within weeks if Congress does not pass a funding bill by Nov. 17 to keep services and offices operating. More immediately, President Joe Biden has asked Congress to provide $105 billion in aid — to help Israel and Ukraine in their wars and to secure the U.S. border with Mexico. Federal aviation and agriculture programs will expire without action.
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, the far-right leader who engineered McCarthy’s ouster, said several of the candidates – Hern, Donalds or Johnson – would make “phenomenal” choices for speaker.
Still, Gaetz voted for Emmer, while others who joined in ousting McCarthy did not.
Many Emmer opponents opposed a leader who voted for the budget deal McCarthy struck with Biden earlier this year that set federal spending levels that far-right Republicans disagree with and now want to reverse. They are seeking deeper cuts to federal programs and services with next month’s funding deadline.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia said she wanted assurances that the nominees would pursue impeachment investigations into Biden and other senior Cabinet officials.
During the unrest, the House of Representatives is now led by a nominal interim speaker pro tempore, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the bow-tie-wearing chairman of the Financial Services Committee. His main task is to choose a more permanent speaker.
Some Republicans – and Democrats – simply want to give McHenry more power to continue his routine business of governing. But McHenry, the first person to hold the position created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, declined to support those overtures.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.
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