Calmes: The shutdown looms, and Speaker Mike Johnson has nothing

This image from House Television video shows House Speaker Mike Johnson of La., announcing Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, the vote total as the House votes to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., for her rhetoric about the Israel-Hamas war. (House Television via AP)
Speaker Mike Johnson is the least-experienced person to hold the House leadership role since the 19th century. (House television image / via Associated Press)
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House Speaker Mike Johnson, the obscure former backbencher vaulted out of the far-right field to Congress’ highest-ranking job just over two weeks ago, told Sean Hannity that the many Americans wondering about his worldview should simply “pick up a Bible” and read it.

It’s funny, though — my copy doesn’t say anything about funding the U.S. government (or foreign policy, climate change, LGBTQ+ rights, gun policies and much more, for that matter). And MAGA Mike, as he’s affectionately dubbed on the right, must also be having a hard time locating the pertinent passage. He adjourned the House on Thursday for a long weekend, still without a funding plan that would avert the government’s shutdown Friday at midnight.

Johnson’s retreat followed days of huddling behind closed doors with his fractious colleagues. (There was no word on whether they consulted a Bible.) Here’s his problem, given the slim majority he supposedly leads: He can only lose a handful of Republicans on any piece of legislation, but no one wants to compromise and virtually everything is unacceptable to one group or another.

Some of his far-right compatriots say they will cut Johnson some slack — certainly compared to former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, whom they ousted last month for cutting a stopgap deal with Democrats and President Biden to avoid a shutdown — but their forbearance is limited. And now the clique of so-called moderates — vulnerable Republicans from districts Biden won or nearly did — has finally risen up against the dominant MAGA faction’s demands. “We're tired of taking crappy votes," Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon said.

It seems fitting that the antigovernment, politically amateurish House Republicans, after rejecting three seasoned party leaders to replace McCarthy, finally landed on Johnson, the least-experienced speaker since the 19th century. It's clear that the MAGA disciple from Louisiana is not a serious legislator. Facing his first big test atop a divided government along with Biden and a Democratic-controlled Senate, Johnson is failing.

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His majority plainly would be happier in the minority, where the members could wreak right-wing havoc without having the responsibility of managing the government they so loathe. They are incapable of making the compromises essential to democracy, even with each other.

At the rate House Republicans are going, voters a year from now could well free them — and Johnson — of their burdensome authority. For now, however, their governing ineptitude hurts the country.

Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, last Thursday posted on X: “With all the political news this week” — bad polls for Biden, boffo off-year election results for his party, new developments in Donald Trump’s legal morass and another Trump-less Republican presidential debate — “what's happening in the House may be the most under the radar AND have the most consequences.”

Read more: Granderson: Republican hate for LGBTQ+ people fueled Mike Johnson's rise to be House speaker

Heye wrote just after Johnson and his leadership lieutenants had, for the second time in a week, scuppered plans for a House vote on one of the 12 annual appropriations bills to fund government agencies and operations. They didn’t have enough Republican support. One of the bills, like several others pending, included an anti-abortion provision — after voters on Tuesday strongly favored abortion rights and pro-abortion-rights Democrats even in red states.

Swing-district Republicans rebelled. "I don't know if these guys have cable," said one, Rep. John Duarte of the Central Valley, about the party leadership. “But if they watched the elections... the American people are about fed up with abortion regulations being stuffed into every aspect of their lives."

As usual, House Republicans’ problems are self-induced. The government’s fiscal year began Oct. 1 and they squandered the bonus time McCarthy bought them by warring over his replacement. Days away from a second shutdown deadline, rookie Johnson still has no apparent plan for another stopgap bill that he could pass, let alone for the appropriations bills. And whatever Johnson and his extremist caucus does come up with will confront bipartisan Senate opposition.

Read more: Opinion: How new House Speaker Mike Johnson tried again and again to overturn Biden's election

Johnson has angered senators of both parties by his opposition to more Ukraine aid and by delaying emergency aid to Israel, gratuitously attaching a provision to the bill he knew Democrats would reject. As for devising another stopgap bill, Johnson floated one idea that Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia dismissed as “confusing and difficult to manage,” and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, derided as “the craziest, stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.”

House Republicans are worse than the gang that can’t shoot straight. These folks shoot straight all right — into both feet. Again and again. They’re a prime example of Mark Twain’s warning: “There is no education in the second kick of a mule.”

Perhaps Johnson could find a better aphorism for his plight in the Bible. Meanwhile, we do have this biblical reference, from his MAGA colleague, Rep. Troy Nehls of Texas: "I don't think the Lord Jesus himself could manage this group."


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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.