Mike Johnson on the clock

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Miami University in Ohio is my alma mater. And for decades, Miami’s football teams played on a field which featured a mystifying, archaic, non-digital game clock which nobody – and I mean nobody – could understand. 

Not even the players and coaches from Miami.

Most clocks tell time.

But all that old clock told was ambiguity.

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No one was ever quite sure how many minutes or seconds were left in the game.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., never set foot on Miami’s field. But the clock he’s dealing with in Congress is reminiscent of the bizarre timepiece on the gridiron in Oxford, Ohio.

House Speaker Mike Johnson

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has served as House speaker for less than a month. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Johnson’s held the Speaker’s chair for less than a month. But he is already on the clock. And much like football games at Miami, no one quite knows how to read the clock or how much time is left in the game for Johnson.

The Speaker maneuvered to pass an interim spending bill last week to avoid a Thanksgiving government shutdown. Johnson did so with a margin nearly identical to that of his predecessor to sidestep a September shutdown. Only that bill cost former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., his job.

Everyone knew that McCarthy was on the clock this year after it took 15 ballots and parts of five days to elect him Speaker back in January. McCarthy’s clock was far different from the outmoded clock at Miami.

Republican California Rep. Kevin McCarthy

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023. (Nathan Howard/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

McCarthy’s clock was a chronograph with quartz movement. Everyone knew it was just a matter of time with McCarthy.

McCarthy finally won the gavel following the longest Speaker’s election since 1859. But to understand Johnson’s clock management, one only need to examine the failure of a procedural vote on the House floor just before lawmakers abandoned town for the Thanksgiving recess.

The House was trying to rifle through one more, individual spending bill before the break. This measure would fund Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) programs. Also on the docket: a bill to freeze $6 billion in Iranian assets the U.S. sent to Tehran as part of a prisoner exchange.

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House Republicans have struggled for weeks to pass even their own appropriations bills. That was a hallmark of McCarthy’s tenure. Things haven’t gotten much better under Johnson. In fact, the GOP leadership has either yanked from the schedule or the House has blocked an astonishing four spending bills during Johnson’s abbreviated Speakership.

Such was the case last Wednesday when House conservatives teamed with Democrats to bar the House from even beginning debate on the (CJS) appropriations bill and the Iran measure. 

With no bill to debate, the House brass pulled the plug and sent everyone home a day-and-a-half earlier than expected.

“The swamp won,” said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Tex., about Johnson writing yet another temporary spending bill. But he called Johnson “a good man.”

Still, Roy was just heating up.

 “Republican voters are tired of promises to fight. We want to actually see change,” barked Roy on the House steps.

Chip Roy

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

A few minutes later, Roy was inside, ranting on the House floor. Roy’s voice cracked in anger as he bellowed about Johnson’s bipartisan gambit to fund the government.

“I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing – one – that I can go campaign on and say we did! Anybody sitting in the (Capitol) complex, if you want to come down to the floor and come explain to me one material, meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done besides ‘Well, I guess it’s not as bad as the Democrats,’” beseeched Roy.

The Texas Republican had no takers.

Except perhaps by Democrats.

Republicans might not have a lot to show for their efforts. But considering the chaos on the GOP side of the aisle – punctuated by the three-week vacancy in the Speakership – Democrats will likely deploy Roy’s diatribe about the dearth of GOP accomplishments in every political ad for competitive House contests next year.

Roy was relentless in his criticism of how Republicans quickly reverted to old ways under Johnson. That’s why he and other conservatives torched the provision for the House to consider the spending bill and Iran measure.

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“We went through an entire month without a Speaker and we just did the same damn thing that we’re doing,” exploded Roy. “I didn’t come here for more excuses. I didn’t come here to have the Speaker of the House assume the position and in 17 days, pass a continuing resolution (the interim spending plan) on the floor of this House through suspension of the rules.”

Johnson used a procedure called “suspension of the rules” to approve the emergency spending plan because Roy and other right-wing members would have blocked the House from considering the “rule” required to put a bill on the floor. The House must first approve a “rule” before it considers most major pieces of legislation. No rule? Then no debate on the floor.

That is, unless you go around the rule and consider the measure as a suspension bill. 

House Freedom Caucus Chairman & Rep. Scott Perry, R-Penn., described the CJS/Iran bill as “very, very, weak.”

Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla., was more strident.

“We’re going to make sure that he follows through on what he said he was going to do,” said Luna of Johnson.

Yours truly asked Johnson why the Speaker’s two-step spending plan “didn’t seem to satisfy some of the arch-conservatives in your caucus.”

“I’m one of the arch-conservatives and I want to cut spending right now,” answered Johnson. “But when you have a three-vote majority, as we do right now, we don’t have the votes to be able to advance that right now. 

In short, it’s about the math. 

But that might not satisfy the likes of Roy and other conservatives. They essentially argued in favor of a government shutdown over Thanksgiving in their quest to secure immediate spending cuts.

They’ll get to go to the mat over that in the coming weeks. Johnson’s two-leveled spending plan sets up government funding deadlines on January 19 and February 2.

With a note of irony, we’ll note that February 2 is also Groundhog Day.

It’s not 100 percent clear that Johnson is in the precise position that Kevin McCarthy was. But a trendline is emerging. Johnson says he won’t allow another temporary spending measure. And if he does, Johnson has gone back on a promise. If he sticks to his promise, that could spark a government shutdown.

That’s why there’s worry about Johnson facing a challenge to his leadership much like McCarthy. Thus, he is on the clock.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries speaks to the press

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP/Jose Luis Magana)

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., summoned the Congressional press corps for a news conference a few hours after House members fled Washington last Wednesday.

A reporter asked Jeffries about his relationship with Johnson and if he had “any advice for him as he faces these difficulties.”

“Good luck!” chortled Jeffries, eliciting laughter from reporters as he concluded the session with the scribes.

Jeffries speaks the truth.

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Johnson is on the clock. And if time’s not on his side, perhaps luck will be.



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