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Speaker Johnson singed by a blast of conservative fury

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Speaker Mike Johnson is edging closer to the same sort of clash with conservatives that helped bring down his predecessor Kevin McCarthy.

The brewing storm, crystallized by Johnson’s comments during a Wednesday meeting with GOP senators, is threatening to end what is left of the Louisiana Republican’s honeymoon running the House. On his right flank, some members are already asking behind closed doors whether Johnson might meet the same fate as the deposed McCarthy — though other GOP lawmakers see that speculation as bluster.

Johnson has antagonized conservatives most acutely by engaging in policy talks with fellow leaders, rather than pushing exclusively for base-pleasing wins that won’t survive in the Senate. That traditional approach won’t hurt Johnson with most of the House GOP — but as McCarthy’s ouster made clear, it only takes a handful of fed-up members to make a speaker’s life difficult.

The new speaker showcased his willingness to stand up to conservatives, as well as its limits, during his visit to the Senate. Inside the room, he delivered two messages: that he would call up an extension of government funding through the end of the fiscal year if lawmakers can’t reach a deal, and that he wants to see much of the House’s conservative border bill as part of any potential Senate agreement to aid Ukraine.

Johnson’s stance on government funding isn’t quite new — House Republican leaders have indicated that they wouldn’t pursue more patches and have no interest in a shutdown at the start of an election year. And his hard line on border talks amounts to a major setback for the Senate’s bipartisan work. Still, the GOP frustration with him goes beyond the Freedom Caucus.

“He continues to play games,” a livid Rep. Max Miller (R-Ohio) said in an interview. “We are talking about a man [who] 30 days ago said that he was an anti-CR guy. We are talking about a man 30 days ago that was anti-Ukraine funding. … It shows me he was never really morally convicted in his positions to begin with.

“He just did a 180 on everything he believed in,” Miller added, “and that to me is disgusting.”

Miller, an ally of McCarthy and former President Donald Trump, called Johnson a “joke,” describing the speaker’s decision to attach IRS cuts to Israel aid “a slap in the face to every Jew” and a “fucking dumb” choice that set a precedent of tying domestic policy to foreign aid. He made clear that his complaints stemmed from the speaker’s decision to not take up funding bills this week, as a shutdown deadline looms.

Other conservatives characterized their frustration with Johnson in gentler but clearer terms.

“People are dealing with a little bit of disapprobation,” said Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), among the eight Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy. “I don’t know what people are gonna do.”

The former chief of the conservative Freedom Caucus said that while he sees improvement in Johnson compared to McCarthy, he wouldn’t give Johnson a “great grade right now myself.” Biggs likened Johnson’s grade so far to the grammar school categories of “needing improvement” and “unsatisfactory results.”

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) put it more succinctly, describing Johnson’s performance rating as “plummeting.”

A spokesperson for Johnson pushed back on the criticism, noting that he will continue to fight for top conservative priorities.

“Speaker Johnson’s views have not changed,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “He will continue fighting to stop the flow of illegal migrants and illicit drugs through our wide open Southern border, demand accountability for any aid to Ukraine, and ensure [the foreign intelligence law known as] Section 702 is reformed to prevent abuses from ever occurring again.”

The wrath toward Johnson is by no means universal on the right, which cheered his recent move to release footage from the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of the founding members of the Freedom Caucus, praised Johnson as a “steadfast conservative leader,” arguing in a statement that he has the “full faith of the Republican conference.” Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.), another member of the group, also described the new speaker as “one of us.”

“Conservative members of our conference understand that Speaker Johnson has been handed an incredibly difficult task, and we trust him to continue governing as the steady conservative we have always known him to be,” Cline said.

Since earlier this summer, conservatives have demanded government spending cuts below the budget levels established by the $1.59 trillion debt ceiling deal reached earlier this year. That push led to Republicans slicing $119 billion from that bipartisan total across a dozen annual spending bills, forcing vulnerable moderates to take hard votes for months and frustrating some unwilling GOP appropriators.

But on Wednesday, some of those same conservatives began more actively telegraphing a concession of sorts: They’d reluctantly entertain the same $1.59 trillion topline they once spurned.

“It’s still too much for many of us,” said Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) of that spending level. He added that the House should reject funding “gimmicks” that effectively pad that total, drawing the ire of fiscal hawks.

That demand to scrap “side deals” to the debt agreement is contentious in and of itself — since those deals were critical to the two-year budget accord that helped win support from Democrats and the White House. That agreement, through various accounting tricks, would have added about $54 billion to nondefense funding to help soften other cuts. Democrats have since called it a major win.

Still, Perry acknowledged in previously unheard terms that House conservatives would not get what they want on spending: “$1.59 trillion is too expensive for many of us, but we realize that $1.47 trillion is not going to happen.”

Other conservatives have aligned with Perry, including Roy. That doesn’t mean the Texan, whom McCarthy installed on the powerful Rules Committee that determines what comes to the floor, is copacetic with Johnson.

“Every conversation that I’m hearing about is not a good one. So I suggest that should change quickly, or it is not going to work out very well,” Roy said Wednesday, pointing to government funding, border security and other matters that he feels Johnson is mishandling.

“That’s the stuff of destruction of the Republican Party,” Roy added.

The Texan declined to talk about whether conservatives are entertaining ousting Johnson, but Miller said plainly that the speaker is on his way to attracting enough critics to possibly force a removal vote.

While Miller didn’t say if he would vote to remove Johnson, he predicted that Johnson, who was elected unanimously by House Republicans last month, wouldn’t get the votes to be speaker if the GOP voted again this week.

“He would probably lose 60 to 80, and you can take that to the bank,” Miller said.

To some conservatives, Johnson committed his first cardinal sin earlier this month by passing a short-term government funding patch. Johnson has repeatedly argued that he inherited a tough situation and that his hands were tied.

Senators who met with Johnson on Wednesday didn’t see his acceptance of a potential continuing resolution — funding the government at current levels through Oct. 1 — as a shot across the bow to fellow Republicans. For North Dakota GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer, it was more of a concession to reality.

“Whether that was a promise or a threat, … I think it’s actually obvious, just stating that fact that he doesn’t have the votes for another short-term CR,” Cramer said.

Some of McCarthy’s fiercest critics agree with Johnson that he started with a bad hand, including the conservative who first started floating a vote to evict the former speaker.

“I am sympathetic to … the spending, appropriation circumstances. He did not set that table,” said Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), a Freedom Caucus member seeking statewide office next year.

Bishop added that he thinks Johnson will be an “extremely successful speaker,” saying he has enough room “to make errors, even.”

Asked about an ouster vote, Bishop deemed it “out of the question.”

Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), who also voted to eject McCarthy, similarly indicated it was too early to wade into eviction talk. Good did say, however, that Johnson’s grace period is over.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), credited as the architect of McCarthy’s departure, used a home-state sports analogy to suggest that it’s too soon to judge the speaker.

“Seminoles were down 12-0 in the first half. Ended up beating the Gators like a drum in the second half,” he said in a text. “Because they made adjustments.”

Anthony Adragna, Katherine Tully-McManus, Daniella Diaz and Caitlin Emma contributed to this report.