What we’re learning about House Speaker Mike Johnson and his demands for government funding

The new House speaker, Mike Johnson, is in for on-the-job training as he emerges from relative national obscurity to the top elected Republican in the United States.

In a sort of coming out interview, a chummy talk with Sean Hannity on Fox News Thursday, Johnson laid out his world view, which is rooted in the Bible, answered critics of his long career fighting against gay rights, declined to go into detail on his opposition to all abortion rights, and said he would change House rules to make it harder to remove him as speaker.

But his first order of business, he explained, was to start negotiating with the White House about funding bills. And while he sounded respectful and reasonable, he also made clear Republican support won’t come cheap.

Will insist on cuts to fund the government when funding lapses in less than three weeks. The federal government is limping along between short-term funding bills. Johnson did not rule out the need for another such stopgap bill when the funding next runs out November 17. While he did not endorse a specific plan, Johnson and Hannity talked about one Republican plan that would call for an 8% cut of government spending, a sure nonstarter for the White House and the Senate.

“I think there will be conditions that the American people can live with and the consensus that we can build around here in the House,” Johnson argued.

Has demands for Ukraine support. Unlike some Republicans, Johnson supports more funding to help Ukraine fight off Russia, but he delivered a list of 12 demands Republicans want to see met to make sure the money is well-spent. It’s also not clear how much aid Republicans will agree to. The White House has asked for more than $60 billion.

Wants to cut budget in exchange for Israel support. Rather than simply passing a bill with additional funding for Ukraine and Israel, Republicans will insist on separating the two issues. And Johnson said they will want to see budget cuts elsewhere in exchange for the $14.3 billion the White House wants for Israel.

“We’re not just printing money to send it overseas,” Johnson told Hannity. “We’re going to find the cuts elsewhere to do that.”

Wants Congress to weigh in on military use. In what sounds like a major shift from recent years, Johnson said Republicans could try to restrict President Joe Biden’s ability to respond with US military power in the Middle East. Every president since George W. Bush has relied on executive power to move US troops under the banner of fighting terrorism. If it came to US troops being needed to help rescue American hostages in Israel, Johnson said Congress should weigh in.

“They have very limited authority on what they can do to respond without coming to Congress to seek consent,” he argued.

‘The problem is the human heart,’ not guns

As the latest mass shooting unfolded in Maine, Johnson said guns are not to blame for these horrible, recurring incidents. In his view, since a person could use a car to mow people down, it makes no sense to further regulate guns.

“At the end of the day, it’s – the problem is the human heart. It’s not guns. It’s not the weapons,” Johnson said.

I had to read the exchange a few times to understand his point and I’m not sure exactly how to assess that comparison other than to point out that we don’t have an epidemic of mass murder by vehicle in this country. Johnson did say he could consider legislation related to mental health but did not go into specifics.

Respect for Biden, but a dig at his age

Johnson said he met with Biden for a cordial 15- or 20-minute meeting at which they discussed no policy, but Johnson said he can’t help but respect a man who has attained the Oval Office, even if he feels Biden’s leading a “failed presidency.”

Moments after talking about that cordial meeting, Johnson agreed with Hannity that Biden’s mental acuity has declined in recent years.

“Clearly, if you look at a tape of Joe Biden making an argument in the Senate Judiciary Committee a few years ago, and you see a speech that he delivers now, there’s a difference. Again, I mean, it’s not a personal insult to him. It’s just reality.”

It’s also a main line of attack Republicans are using to question Biden’s leadership with voters before the next election.

Guiding principles of conservatism

In both his speech to lawmakers after winning the speaker role and in his interview with Hannity, Johnson laid out what sounds like a much-practiced list of ideals, “core principles of American conservatism,” which he said are “individual freedom, limited government, the rule of law, peace through strength, fiscal responsibility, free markets, and human dignity.”

He will use these, he said, to convince Democrats that the US should not be led down a path toward European-style socialism.

But you can easily project any number of debates in this country onto his core principles:

  • Gun safety vs. the Second Amendment (individual freedom)

  • How the US protects its people with health and safety regulations through the EPA and FDA (limited government)

  • The consequences for trying to overturn an election (rule of law)

  • Defense spending and aid for Ukraine (peace through strength)

  • The role of regulation in creating a fair playing field (free markets)

  • How the government collects taxes and what services it provides (fiscal responsibility)

  • LGBTQ rights or abortion rights (human dignity)

His world view is the Bible

Hannity asked Johnson about some writings and positions on gay rights that seem out of whack with today’s world, in which same-sex marriage is legal and supported by most Americans. CNN’s KFile has outlined some of Johnson’s writings and comments, including his argument years ago that gay sex could be outlawed, and his argument that same-sex marriage was a threat to democracy.

Johnson told Hannity he doesn’t even remember all of that stuff and that much of it was in support of then-laws as a religious freedom attorney. As such, he was actively fighting against same-sex marriage, legal rights for same-sex domestic partners, and arguing before the Supreme Court that states should be able to outlaw same-sex intercourse.

Today, he said, he follows the rule of law and loves all people, “regardless of their lifestyle choices.”

That comment itself is sure to frustrate LGBTQ Americans who don’t view their sexual orientation as a choice. Johnson also helped write a bill that is viewed as a national version of the Florida law that critics label as the “don’t say gay bill,” which prohibits instruction that refers to sexual orientation for most students.

Johnson is not going to apologize for his beliefs, and he said an easy way into his mind is to “go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it. … That’s my world view. That’s what I believe. And so I make no apologies.”

Culture war issues are not “front-line matters”

It seems logical that Johnson could push for the bill he authored regarding the discussion of sexual orientation in the classroom. And Johnson did not rule out using his position to push legislation that would restrict gender or abortion rights, but he argued there are more pressing issues, which he listed as Israel, Ukraine, China, Iran, the economy, the border and the fentanyl epidemic.

“These are the front-line matters … that have our attention right now. And the rest of these things, they’re just using for political attacks,” Johnson said.

‘Give me a chance’

Hannity read Johnson a press release from Democrats that argued Johnson is a “MAGA extremist” who opposes all abortion and wants to cut Social Security.

People who know him, he said, know those things aren’t true. “Give me a chance. Let me have a chance to lead here, and you will see what I’m really about.”

Democrats will have to work with him to pass any legislation, so they will have to give him some kind of chance.

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