Israel aid, a looming shutdown, and a fractured GOP: Here are the 3 biggest challenges the new speaker faces

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

WASHINGTON – After three weeks without a House speaker, Republicans in the lower chamber came together Wednesday to elect Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., to the top spot.

Johnson, who served as the vice chair of the Republican conference and was first elected to Congress in 2016, succeeds former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. McCarthy was ousted earlier this month by a handful of hardline Republicans after he compromised with Democrats to avoid a government shutdown.

As Johnson settles into the speakership, his first full day on the job won’t be easy.

He needs to unite lawmakers to avoid a government shutdown set for mid-November, address wars in Ukraine and Israel and bring together Republican lawmakers who have been embroiled in infighting since the start of McCarthy’s reign as speaker.

“I want to say to the American people, on behalf of all of us here, we hear you,” Johnson said after he was elected speaker. “We know the challenges you’re facing. We know that there’s a lot going on in our country, domestically and abroad, and we are ready to get to work again to solve those problems.”

Here’s a closer look at the challenges Johnson faces as the new speaker:

Avoiding a government shutdown

Chief among the challenges Johnson faces is avoiding a government shutdown set to start on Nov. 17 that could impact millions of Americans’ lives.

A shutdown means hundreds of thousands of federal workers could be furloughed and low-income families could lose access to Head Start preschool programs or see delays in nutrition assistance.

To avert such a crisis, the House and Senate must pass 12 appropriations bills to keep the government's doors open. Before the previous Oct. 1 shutdown deadline, both chambers only passed a few appropriations bills.

“McCarthy had difficulty getting Republican votes for an appropriations bill that could pass the House. If Johnson can't get enough Republican votes, he'll need Democratic votes – which means concessions,” said David Bateman, a professor of policy and government at Cornell University.

“But even if he gets a Republican-only bill through, that's not likely to pass the Senate or be acceptable to the president. At the end of the day, Johnson will need to pass a bill that Democrats – in the White House or Senate, at the very least – can support," Bateman explained. "If not, there will be a shutdown.”

In a letter to his GOP colleagues, Johnson laid out a plan to at least dodge a shutdown. It included a timeline for the rest of the spending bills and a potential stopgap measure that would temporarily fund the government until either Jan. 15 or April 15.

“McCarthy was able to get a continuing resolution, but it cost him the speakership,” Mark Harkins, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, told USA TODAY. “It is unclear to me if the dynamic that forced that scenario has changed.”

Providing aid to Ukraine, Israel

Another challenge Johnson faces is how he will garner support for President Joe Biden’s request to Congress for funding to support Israel in its war against Hamas and to support Ukraine against Russia's invasion.

Johnson has not indicated that he's in favor of additional Ukraine aid. He voted against two supplemental appropriations bills last year and in September that provided the funding.

“American taxpayers have sent over $100 billion in aid to Ukraine in the last year,” Johnson said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, in February. “They deserve to know if the Ukrainian government is being entirely forthcoming and transparent about the use of this massive sum of taxpayer resources.”

But Democrats in the House have held a hard stance on supporting Ukraine. Passing these aid packages “will require compromise on the part of all parties,” Harkins said.

“Johnson has a difficult needle to thread to reach accommodation with Democrats in the Senate and White House while not losing a governing majority in the House,” he added. “The pressure to not fund Ukraine from a segment of House Republicans will be intense. But that will fly in the face of a majority of members of the House which want the funding approved.”

A staunch supporter of Donald Trump, Johnson might also face pressure from the former president, who has criticized efforts for Ukraine.

However, Johnson has stood for supporting Israel. After Biden’s Oval Office address to the nation last week calling for support for Israel and Ukraine, the Louisiana Republican acknowledged his speech on X.

@JoeBiden's address to the nation tonight only confirms the urgent need for the U.S. to act in support of our great ally, Israel, as they fight against Hamas terrorists,” he wrote. “We must elect a Speaker so the House can take all necessary action to end Hamas forever.”

Uniting Republicans and Democrats

Tensions between moderate and hard-line conservatives in the Republican Party continue to grow, as captured by eight Republicans choosing to oust McCarthy and the multiple rounds of voting that took place after to get a new nominee elected to the speakership.

“The question is not if, but when a segment of the Republican caucus turns against him. Speaker McCarthy was able to get a debt limit deal through," Harkins said. "But when he went back to the well and tried to keep the government open, that ended his speakership. Democrats may be willing to help, but their price may be steeper than speaker Johnson is willing to pay."

The House isn’t known for being a bipartisan institution, he noted, and he doesn’t expect Johnson to change that.

“He is one of, if not the most conservative speaker we have had in a long time. While that got him into the speaker's chair, it will not make it easy for him to reach across the aisle to find compromise solutions,” he said. “The House Republican Conference did not select Speaker Johnson to work with Democrats. They selected him to fight to the end for conservative issues.”

Dave Rausch, Teel Bivins professor of political science at West Texas A&M University, agreed. With Johnson's history including voting against certifying the 2020 election and opposing same-sex marriage, Rausch said he doesn’t know “how many Democrats would be willing to sign on.”

"Johnson's probably walking the most publicized tightrope of anyone because he has to work with Democrats on something, but he can't work with Democrats too much because he has that Republican group – that small group – and now a lot of them kind of think like him."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Israel aid, government shutdown: 3 challenges for new House speaker