Speaker Mike Johnson is still dealing with Kevin McCarthy's baggage

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Four and a half months on the job, House Speaker Mike Johnson is still struggling with the baggage of the tumultuous Kevin McCarthy era.

The Louisiana Republican is trying to fund the government and avert a shutdown based on a budget deal McCarthy and President Joe Biden struck last year that infuriated conservative hard-liners.

Johnson inherited McCarthy’s Rules Committee, which decides how bills make it to the House floor but which McCarthy stacked with conservatives to help defuse their anger. That’s forced Johnson to bypass conservatives on the committee and work with Democrats to enact must-pass legislation.

And Johnson is grappling with a Biden impeachment inquiry that was unilaterally set in motion by his predecessor — even though it appears to be losing steam.

“The former Speaker left us in a really bad spot, and Johnson has to negotiate under the set criteria of the former speaker and the leadership,” said Rep. Tim Burchett, of Tennessee, one of the eight GOP rebels who helped depose McCarthy. “And then some of those in the former speaker’s leadership group are, frankly, stabbing Johnson in the back — or in the front.”

Johnson is now gathering with his fractious and minuscule majority at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, hosting his first House Republican retreat as speaker as he works through the difficult to-do list that McCarthy left for him. Given their two years of infighting and the four-hour drive to the annual confab, only about half of them came.

McCarthy’s Rules Committee

One nagging obstacle for Johnson is the House Rules Committee, a carry-over from the McCarthy days. The panel is typically stacked with loyal foot soldiers closely aligned with leadership since GOP members are carefully handpicked by the speaker.

But after barely winning the speakership in January 2023, McCarthy appointed a trio of conservative rabble-rousers — Reps. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., Chip Roy, R-Texas, and Thomas Massie, R-Ky. — to the powerful panel as an olive branch to the hard right. Once McCarthy was ousted, Johnson was saddled with McCarthy’s Rules Committee, and the challenges that came with it.

The trio has enough votes on the panel to team with Democrats to block GOP legislation that they don’t find sufficiently conservative. It has meant that Johnson has often had to work around his own rules panel, bringing legislation to the floor on an expedited process known as “suspension of the rules,” and rely on Democrats to clear critical bills because of the much higher two-thirds vote threshold. But that’s only created more bad blood with conservatives, especially those on the panel.

“That is a point of disagreement. That’s what we fought for, regular order. Let’s bring it through Rules Committee and let’s debate it. He’s got to get people in a room and hammer it out. The speaker’s got to use his power,” said Norman, a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus, describing Johnson’s opening months as a baptism by fire. “This is fire by fire by fire.”

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., one of McCarthy’s top allies who helped broker the deal to usher him into the speakership, defended McCarthy’s decision to install Freedom Caucus members on key committees, including rules. Involving those members in debates on the front-end prevents problems when bills hit the floor, he said.

“The reality is Freedom Caucus and others are part of our majority right now,” Graves said in an interview. “They need to be part of the process and we need to deal with their perspective and priorities at the lowest level possible.”

But even when bills have passed through the Rules Committee, Republicans have shown an unusual willingness to vote down procedural rules, effectively blocking legislation before a final vote. That’s happened six times this Congress.

And it means Johnson has less leverage with a Democratic-controlled Senate and White House, as he’s privately acknowledged to Republicans on more than one occasion because they know the House can’t muscle through a rule.

McCarthy’s funding deal

When Johnson acquired the gavel at the end of October, he also inherited a government that was on the brink of a shutdown three weeks later — and a band of conservative agitators that didn’t care to avert it.

McCarthy had cut a massive deal with Biden to avert a debt default that also set spending caps for the next two years with cuts conservatives complained didn’t go deep enough. And Congress had failed to pass any long-term funding bills through both chambers while he was speaker.

With little leadership experience, Johnson may not have anticipated how heavy a lift it would be to fund the government and avert a shutdown. Johnson, 52, never chaired a House committee; the last leadership job he held — GOP Conference vice chair — was so low it wasn’t even listed on the official House website.

Johnson, who declared in November he would not put another short-term funding bill (known as a “CR”) on the floor, has since done so twice to extend funding deadlines that he set. He did so both times by going around his Rules Committee and relying equally as much on Democratic votes as he did on Republicans.

“It’s the fourth CR since he’s been speaker and the fifth CR of the year. It’s just another kick the can down the road exercise,” said Roy, a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus whom McCarthy installed on the rules panel. “We’re buying time to negotiate a bill to spend more money and he’s not gonna get any policy wins.”

For his part, Johnson managed to pass a first tranche of funding bills last week, keeping a portion of the government afloat through the fiscal year that ends in October. Next comes the real test: passing a second tranche of spending bills — funding critical agencies like the Defense, State and Homeland Security departments — before another shutdown deadline on March 22.

Johnson’s team has argued that, under his leadership, it’s the first time since 2018 that the government has not been funded through one massive omnibus package. And they pointed to GOP wins in the first package, including cuts to the FBI, Environmental Protection Agency, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; more money for the Drug Enforcement Administration to combat fentanyl; and a policy giving veterans easier access to firearms even if they have been deemed unable to handle their own finances.

“We are actually moving the ball forward and getting the job done. We are governing,” Johnson said at the opening retreat news conference in West Virginia.

His allies say he’s doing well with a tiny majority and inherited problems.

Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, who, like Johnson, had initially joined the Freedom Caucus before dropping out, said he’s “totally convinced” that Johnson shares his right flank’s goals of cutting spending but acknowledged the “challenging job” he has. “I’m very sympathetic to him. I really am,” Babin said.

Unlike his predecessor McCarthy, Johnson isn’t facing serious threats to oust him from the top job — even from those who disagree with his approach.

During a news conference last week, the former chair of the House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., put his arm around the speaker and shielded him from potential criticism, reminding those in the room that Johnson inherited the parameters that constrain him from negotiating more conservative budget deals.

A McCarthy-launched impeachment inquiry

As he fought to save his job last year, McCarthy unilaterally launched an impeachment investigation into Biden and his family’s foreign business dealings. When McCarthy was ousted from power just weeks later, the Biden impeachment was suddenly Johnson’s to deal with.

“He cocked that gun and then didn’t even have the bullets to fire it,” Burchett, the Tennessee congressman, said of McCarthy.

With the White House arguing that the inquiry was unconstitutional, Johnson made the case to reluctant rank-and-file Republicans that they needed to formalize it with a vote to enforce their subpoenas. With that argument, the former constitutional lawyer managed to get all 221 Republicans to vote yes — something of a pre-Christmas miracle.

But that’s where the unity ended on the issue. Many Republicans have grown skeptical of the effort to impeach Biden and the evidence that’s been presented so far — and that was before an FBI informant at the “heart” of the inquiry was charged with lying to the bureau about the Bidens. One impeachment-averse Republican even sped up his planned retirement over the dysfunction.

“We’ve taken impeachment and we’ve made it a social media issue as opposed to a constitutional concept,” Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., told reporters on Wednesday moments after announcing that he would resign next week from Congress. “This place keeps going downhill, and I don’t need to spend more time here.”

Buck’s planned resignation, coupled with Democrat Tom Suozzi flipping a GOP seat in New York last month, has made the impeachment math virtually impossible for Johnson and the Republicans this year. They can afford to lose only two GOP defections on any vote.

Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., a Johnson ally who served with him in the House, told NBC News that if Johnson survives the funding and foreign aid battles on Capitol Hill, “He is probably the most effective speaker they’re going to have in the coming years.”

“Because since he was thrown right into the water, sink or swim — if he comes out of this thing, he’s gone through more than the last three months than most speakers deal with the whole time they’re in office.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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