WASHINGTON — The United States (US) House of Representatives elected Republican Mike Johnson, a conservative with little leadership experience, as speaker on Wednesday (Oct 25), ending a turbulent three weeks that left the rudderless chamber unable to carry out any of its basic duties.
The 220 to 209 party-line vote elevated Johnson to the powerful role that has been vacant since Mr Kevin McCarthy was ousted on Oct 3 by a small group of his fellow Republicans.
“We want our allies around the world to know that this body of lawmakers is reporting again to our duty stations,” Mr Johnson, 51, said shortly after winning the speaker’s gavel.
His first act was to call up legislation to signal support for Israel, which has stepped up its bombings of Gaza following a cross-border killing and kidnapping spree by Hamas militants early this month.
Mr Johnson is best known as the author of an unsuccessful appeal by 126 House Republicans to get the Supreme Court to overturn election results in states that Donald Trump had lost in the 2020 presidential election. First elected in 2016, he is the least experienced House speaker in decades.
The Louisiana lawmaker declined to answer a question about the Supreme Court effort shortly after his nomination on Tuesday night, while other Republicans booed and heckled the reporter who asked it.
In a letter to colleagues, Mr Johnson has vowed to advance overdue spending legislation and ensure that the US government does not shut down when current funding expires on Nov 17.
In his speech, he said he would prioritise border security and establish a bipartisan commission to examine ways to tackle the US$33 trillion (S$45 trillion) national debt.
He will also have to respond to Democratic President Joe Biden’s US$106 billion spending request for aid to Israel, Ukraine and US border security. While House Republicans broadly support funding for Israel and the US border, they are divided over further support for Ukraine.
Mr Biden urged Mr Johnson to move quickly on the funding package. “Even though we have real disagreements about important issues, there should be mutual effort to find common ground wherever we can,” he said in a statement.
The three-week speaker battle has helped to push up the US government’s borrowing costs. The government posted a record US$1.7 trillion deficit for the most recent fiscal year, in part due to higher interest payments.
Democrats blasted Mr Johnson’s conservative stances on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, as well as his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
“Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election… No amount of election denialism will ever change that reality. Not now, not ever,” Democratic House Leader Hakeem Jeffries said shortly before inviting Mr Johnson to take up the speaker’s gavel.
While House leaders typically focus on fundraising and vote counting, Mr Johnson is better known as an advocate for conservative social positions.
He has supported legislation that bars gender-related surgery and hormone treatment for transgender teens, prohibits mask mandates on aeroplanes, and tightens immigration and abortion restrictions.
Mr Johnson is far from the top ranks of House Republican fundraisers — typically a key duty for a party leader. His campaign raised about US$1.3 million in the 2022 election cycle, a fraction of the US$28 million raised by Mr Kevin McCarthy’s campaign and US$14 million raised by Mr Jim Jordan’s.
Republicans narrowly control the House by a 221-212 margin, leaving them with little room for error on controversial votes. Their divisions were on display over the past few weeks, as they nominated three candidates for speaker — Steve Scalise, Jordan and Tom Emmer — who failed to win the election.
As speaker, Mr Johnson will have to confront the same challenges that felled Mr McCarthy and stymied his would-be successors. They include the demands of the caucus’ hardline members and the reality that with a Democratic majority in the Senate and Biden occupying the Oval Office, no laws can currently be passed in Washington without bipartisan support.
His inexperience may have helped him win the job by giving him less time to make enemies.
“Politics is like the fight business,” Republican Tom Cole said. “The longer you are in it, the more you get beat up. And there’s punches you can take early in your career that you can’t take later.” REUTERS