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Why Mike Johnson’s gavel is safe — for now

Speaker Mike Johnson is averting a government shutdown essentially the same way Kevin McCarthy did: by partnering with Democrats to pass a government funding bill with no spending cuts.

Unlike his predecessor, it won’t cost him the job.

Many House conservatives are fuming that Johnson — the most ideologically conservative speaker in decades — refused to take a hard line in his first attempt negotiating with Democrats and instead leaned on them for help. In the end, more Democrats voted for the measure than Republicans, in nearly identical numbers to the September stopgap measure that triggered McCarthy’s firing. Some tore into his strategy in a closed-door meeting Tuesday, arguing that his plan, which would allow funding levels set under Nancy Pelosi to persist for months, is tantamount to surrender.

They’re not looking to oust Johnson over it. But some conservatives are privately entertaining other ways to retaliate.

One tactic under discussion is the same one they used against McCarthy after he struck a debt deal they hated: holding the House floor hostage by tanking procedural votes.

“There is a sentiment that if we can’t fight anything, then let’s just hold up everything,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), one of several frustrated Freedom Caucus members who has huddled with the speaker multiple times this week.

There are a few reasons conservatives won’t push a mutiny 20 days into Johnson’s speakership, an effort Rep. Andy Ogles (R-Tenn.) characterized as “untenable.” But mainly, Johnson doesn’t have the same stubborn trust issues that plagued his predecessor.

McCarthy and his allies argue he was ousted not for working with Democrats to pass a spending bill, but largely due to personal animus among the eight GOP members who voted against him, particularly the leader of the rebellion, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).

The extent of that bad blood between McCarthy and his defectors was on full display Tuesday, when one of the eight, Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) accused the former speaker of intentionally elbowing him in the Capitol basement. Burchett even suggested the two men could settle things in “the parking lot.” (McCarthy denied any kind of physical shove.)

Johnson, who the House GOP unanimously supported for speaker last month and has served in Congress less than seven years, doesn’t have the same personal beefs. But conservatives aren’t giving him a pass on this indefinitely, with some signaling Johnson will have a major problem down the line if he doesn’t prove he’ll govern differently than McCarthy.

“There’s always that tension, but I don’t see that happening anytime in the near future,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), a House Freedom Caucus member. “I think most people are willing to give him some time, but we need to see something different.”

There’s another hurdle: Johnson is confronting a GOP conference that’s now even more bitterly divided than when his predecessor was in charge. Besides frustrations from the right flank, the Louisianan is also facing restive groups of Biden-district Republicans and centrists, who have increasingly made clear they’ll push back if leadership tries to force tough votes. After its ugly 22-day speaker battle, the 221-member conference has seemingly lost its ability to maneuver as a team. Instead, it’s every man for himself.

“You’ve got everybody acting as an independent agent rather than acting in a uniform way,” said Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio). “And they’re not necessarily in one line or the other. I think because of the tactics that have been taken by certain folks, [it’s] encouraged other folks.”

If those divisions worsen — like if conservatives make good on their threat to start blocking bills from coming to the floor — some centrist Republicans pointed out that would just increase their incentive to join forces with Democrats. Republicans openly shifting to that strategy would amount to a historic shift in House power dynamics.

“It just forces us to work with Democrats — these guys play checkers, they don’t play chess,” said centrist Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.).

Johnson, meanwhile, is attempting to steady a seesaw of competing demands from the various corners of his conference, all while getting acquainted with a job that is six ladder rungs above where he previously served in GOP leadership. It’s a nearly impossible role, even in normal circumstances, as McCarthy, Paul Ryan and John Boehner all demonstrated before him. Johnson likened it to drinking from “Niagara Falls for the last three weeks.”

One sign of success: Johnson staved off disaster on the floor on Tuesday in real time, talking down a group of conservatives who wanted to block a massive health, labor and education spending bill. The speaker’s pitch, according to Norman: He had a plan to jam the Democratic Senate and cut spending in the full-year funding legislation Congress now has to pass in January and February.

But House Freedom Caucus members, in a meeting attended by Johnson and another ultraconservative ally, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), said that they had their own strategy to make the Senate swallow spending cuts now rather than later. Johnson, clearly, chose to go another route.

“We were going to fight. We had a well-laid-out plan yesterday, had a senator there, who had it worked out where as Bill Posey said, ‘the hot potato was with the Senate,’” Norman said about the meeting. “If you are scared of getting wet, you might not swim.”

The next morning, speaking to his full GOP conference, Johnson privately made the case that this was simply the card he was dealt. He presented the stopgap spending bill as his only real option, given the House’s slim margins as well as the amount of time they lost in the three-week long speaker’s race, according to a House Republican who attended the closed-door meeting.

Publicly, Johnson shared a similar message, pushing back on conservative assertions that he was surrendering: “I can’t turn an aircraft carrier overnight.”

And asked whether he fears the funding fight makes his speakership any less secure, Johnson brushed it off: “I’m not concerned about it at all.”

He argued that he’s in a “different situation” than his predecessor, largely thanks to his spending strategy — which includes two funding deadlines intended to force Congress to consider individual spending bills, rather than a mammoth spending package. Johnson said Democrats first feared the idea, but he insisted it will change the way they approach funding. (The Freedom Caucus, which initially supported the two-step approach, later formally opposed it because it contained “no spending reductions, no border security, and not a single meaningful win for the American People.”)

“Kevin should take no blame for that. Kevin was in a very difficult situation that happened,” Johnson added.

Still, the right flank remains mostly unconvinced by the Louisiana Republican’s pitch. Many worry that Johnson’s decisions on the stopgap bill are an early signal that he is less likely to fight for their priorities heading into January and February.

Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), who was in the Freedom Caucus meeting with Johnson, acknowledged that he’s in a “tough position” but warned that his honeymoon period is effectively over. And now, the speaker needs a strategy pivot, or he’ll fall into the same trap as previous GOP speakers who “flamed out one after another.”

“He’s got to find an opportunity to change the dynamics,” Bishop said. “If he can’t, he’s going to follow the same path of not just the immediately previous speaker but a series of them who have not really proved successful.”

Meredith Lee Hill contributed to this report.

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