Johnson faces legislative landmines as Republicans let untested speaker chart new course

(CNN) - Mike Johnson swiftly ascended to the speakership with unanimous support from his party. Now comes the hard part.

A largely inexperienced and untested leader, Johnson has to immediately confront a number of pressing legislative challenges and the deep scars within his bitterly divided party left by the 22 days of dysfunction without an elected speaker.

On top of essential legislative hurdles like how to keep the government open beyond November 17, Johnson will also need to kick start the stalled Republican agenda, which includes the impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden that has faded from the spotlight amid Republican infighting over the speaker’s gavel.

“Everything has lost momentum,” GOP Rep. Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania told CNN when asked how the delay in uniting behind a speaker has impacted the House Republican agenda. “It’s sad. It shouldn’t be this way.”

“This has not been a good moment,” said Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, reflecting on the last three weeks. “So, to minimize that would be ludicrous because it’s something that’s never happened. It’s totally derailed our agenda. And I think it’s been very hurtful. We need now to look for ways to move forward.”

Once Johnson clinched the votes to become speaker Wednesday, the House could finally reopen, allowing members to get back to work and move legislation. Within hours of being elected, Johnson’s first act was to put a bipartisan resolution on the floor in support of Israel in the war against Hamas.

The resolution passed with overwhelming support, notching Johnson an easy and early victory. But much bigger tests await, including how to deal with a looming resolution to expel embattled GOP Rep. George Santos of New York, a censure resolution introduced by Georgia GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene against Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and the tricky topic of whether to couple Ukraine aid with Israel aid – an issue that has been divisive in the GOP.

Asked Tuesday whether he supports more aid for Ukraine, Johnson replied, “We all do. We’re gonna have conditions on that. We’re working through it. We’ll get you more details.”

Pressed by CNN what those conditions would be, he declined to get into specifics.

“We want accountability, and we want objectives that are clear from the White House,, but we’re going to have those discussions, gonna be very productive,” he said.

With the Senate considering a White House request for a Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and border security package, it could tee up a massive showdown with the House. Adding to the already challenging dynamic, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell – who has been a staunch supporter of Ukraine aid – has no relationship with Johnson and has not yet met the newly minted speaker, according to his office.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, was asked by CNN on Wednesday what she thinks it will be like to work with Johnson on spending issues.

Collins told CNN she doesn’t know him and in a revealing moment added, “I was going to Google him this morning as a matter of fact.”

Johnson’s proposal for how to keep the government open past the upcoming deadline calls for a short-term measure that even he opposed back when then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy introduced one to keep the government open passed its original September 30 deadline. That move by McCarthy was the catalyst for eight House Republicans to vote to remove McCarthy from the speaker’s chair, descending the House into chaos for the last three weeks.

But a number of those eight Republicans seem more willing to give Johnson a longer leash to govern – at least for now.

“I trust Mike Johnson. And I know Mike Johnson wants to achieve the goals I wanted to achieve,” said GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who brought forward the motion to oust McCarthy earlier this month.

The reason these conservatives Republicans seem more open to giving Johnson some flexibility compared to McCarthy seems to be personal.

“None of these disagreements were ever about principle,” Texas GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw said. “It was about personality and who’s saying it.”

‘I am incredibly frustrated’

On top of the legislative hurdles, Johnson will have to confront the raw emotions of members whose patience and trust have been stretched as the conference tried and failed multiple times to elect a speaker over the course of three weeks.

“I am incredibly frustrated,” GOP Rep. John Duarte of California told CNN, who noted that the ongoing speaker elections were derailing a key committee hearing scheduled at the same time.

Lawmakers say the boiling tensions have not just remained confined to Capitol Hill, but they’ve also felt them in their districts.

GOP Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota told CNN that his constituents “just can’t believe that we’re this bad,” and said the “chaos has been absolutely inexcusable.”

To succeed in his new role, the new speaker will have to find a way to eradicate the battle lines that were drawn over the last three weeks, particularly as he attempts to govern with such a narrow majority.

“I think it’s possible to move on. Healing is going to take a while,” said GOP Rep. Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota. “There are a lot of different things that have happened, since the speaker’s race. … I think that Mike has as good ability as anybody to be an honest broker about how this happens.”

Yet that healing time could be cut short. New York House Republicans say they plan to introduce a resolution to expel Santos as soon as Thursday. Even though Republicans unified to elect Johnson, some have said they want to hold the eight Republicans accountable that hurdled the conference into this mess and many believe the new speaker should approve a rule change so it cannot be as easy to remove the speaker going forward.

So far, though, Speaker Johnson is treading carefully. He declined to comment Tuesday on whether he backs the effort to expel Santos, telling reporters: “I’m not gonna talk about all that.”

CNN’s Lauren Fox and Haley Talbot contributed to this report.

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