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New leader of US House faces daunting first days

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Inexperienced and untested, the new speaker of the United States (US) House of Representatives faces a baptism of fire as he contends with a pile-up of deadlines, a razor-thin majority, and a raucous right wing that is unlikely to allow him an extended honeymoon period.

Mike Johnson — a committed Donald Trump acolyte and an instinctive fiscal and social conservative to his core — almost certainly harbors ambitions to drastically rein in spending and government regulation.

But his first days as speaker are brimming with more immediate business, chiefly averting a government shutdown that will bite on November 17 unless he can find a compromise with the Democratic-controlled Senate.

President Joe Biden is also seeking rapid action on a USD106 billion security package that couples additional aid for Ukraine and Israel with increased spending on US border security — the latter a key concern for congressional Republicans.

Johnson’s good friend and fellow Republican lawmaker Chris Smith described him as a man of “deep faith and principle who knows how to get things done.”

“Here in the House, Mike’s experience as vice chairman of the Republican conference shows that he has what it takes to unite House Republicans so we can continue our work,” he said.

Newly elected US Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) delivers remarks with fellow Republicans on the East Front steps of the House of Representatives at the US Capitol on October 25, 2023 in Washington, DC. PHOTO: AFP

But Johnson, 51, was far from anyone’s first choice for the job, having stumbled into his unlikely leadership role almost by default as the last credible Republican standing in a bruising three-week contest.

The policy-oriented technocrat’s obscurity was seen as a boon in his election as he was one of the few hopefuls who had managed to climb the ranks in Washington without making enemies with other Republicans.

‘Well-respected’ 
 
“Mike is one of those people who gets along with everybody and he’s well-respected,” Colorado Republican Ken Buck told CNN.
 
But that advantage could be his biggest hurdle when it comes to governing, as he faces the challenge of building relationships with senators on both sides of the upper chamber of Congress who could barely pick him out of a crowd.
 
He will also have to corral a party riven by factionalism and reeling from a drawn-out public implosion that has damaged the Republican brand as he seeks to avoid the kind of schisms that led to his predecessor’s downfall.
 
He has already begun the healing, winning the support of Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, the chief instigator of the coup against previous speaker Kevin McCarthy.
 
“If you don’t think that moving from Kevin McCarthy to… Mike Johnson shows the ascendance of this movement and where the power in the Republican Party truly lies, then you’re not paying attention,” Gaetz told the conservative War Room internet show.
 
But in a sign of the choppy waters ahead, Gaetz told reporters separately that the new speaker would be prohibited from repeating what the hard right considered one of McCarthy’s sins — throwing multiple issues into giant “omnibus” bills that force all-or-nothing votes, allowing the leadership to block dissent on contentious issues.
 
Mistaken identity 
 
Critics say his predecessor McCarthy was ousted mainly because he relied on governing by “continuing resolution” — the stop-gap bills that essentially kick the can down the road by keeping the country ticking over at current spending levels.
 
He will likely be given leeway to get through the fast-approaching November shutdown deadline with another legislative band-aid, perhaps until mid-January.
 
But conservatives yearning for smaller government will soon expect him to get back to budgeting through the committee process, where every lawmaker gets to debate spending levels and make their case for cuts.
 
And then there’s the delicate issue of fundraising. Johnson has some catching up to do to transform from a middling money-spinner to the head of the kind of cash-cow operation that made McCarthy friends all over Washington.
 
Analysts are split on how much Johnson is likely to reach across the aisle.
 
Democrats revile Johnson and his fellow 146 Republicans who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
 
In the meantime, the name of the game will be breaking bread with friends and adversaries alike, and introducing himself to an American public that has almost no idea who he is.
 
Closer to home, he’s not off to the best start.
 
Arizona’s Paul Gosar, a lawmaker from Johnson’s own side of the aisle, circulated a press release rallying support for the new speaker — but fluffed his new boss’s name.
 
“It is time for House Republicans and Congress to unite around Jim Johnson and get to work to solve the many problems ailing our nation,” the errant congressman said.
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