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After twin failures, Johnson confronts new doubts as US House leader

FILE PHOTO: U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson in Washington

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A day after back-to-back failures on two high-profile bills, Republican U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson faced doubts about his leadership on Wednesday, as Congress lurched toward another government shutdown deadline in less than a month.

Johnson, a 52-year-old Christian conservative who was relatively new to leadership ranks when the House of Representatives elected him speaker in October, already had the daunting task of holding his raucous majority together to enact 12 appropriations bills for fiscal 2024 before funding runs out beginning March 1.

Doubts about his ability and that of his team mounted after Johnson tried and failed to pass two party priorities on Tuesday: the impeachment of U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and an aid package for Israel.

The stunning back-to-back failures were a major embarrassment for House Republicans, prompting a new outbreak of infighting within Johnson's thin majority targeted at three party members who opposed the Mayorkas impeachment in a narrow 214-216 vote.

Republicans predicted they would succeed with a second Mayorkas impeachment vote after a notable absentee, Minority Leader Steve Scalise, returns to Congress following treatment for blood cancer. But even his return may not be enough to tip the balance, if Tuesday's special election for the seat of expelled Republican George Santos goes to Democrat Tom Suozzi.

Before the Mayorkas and Israel votes, House Republicans saw Johnson as a reliable conservative, managing as speaker under challenging conditions inherited from his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, who was ousted last year by Republican hardliners.

Lawmakers from both parties criticized Johnson's leadership on Wednesday.

"Getting rid of Speaker McCarthy has officially turned into an unmitigated disaster," Representative Thomas Massie, a hardline Republican conservative who has supported leadership in the past, said on the social media platform X.

Johnson, who announced the failure of the Mayorkas vote himself from the chamber dais, had told reporters earlier in the day that he believed both bills would succeed.

'LACK OF LEADERSHIP'

That drew criticism from across the aisle, as House Republicans said Johnson's plan had been up-ended by the surprise appearance of a Democratic lawmaker who had just undergone surgery.

"How do you put up two bills that lose?" asked Democratic Representative Frank Pallone. "It's an indication of a lack of leadership that he thinks something's going to happen that doesn't."

Johnson denied the two failed votes stemmed from his inexperience and blamed political polarization.

"I don't think this is a reflection on the leader. It's a reflection on the body itself and the place where we've come in this country. Look, the nation is divided," the speaker told reporters on Wednesday.

"It was a mess, what happened here. And we're cleaning it up," he said. "The job will be done at the end of the day."

Other Republicans described Tuesday's twin failures as the latest example of Republican chaos that has dogged Congress since early 2023 when the party took narrow control of the House - and has intensified since Donald Trump became the overwhelming Republican front-runner in the 2024 presidential race.

"When you have the majority, there is an expectation that you will be able to govern. And we've just struggled with that over and over again," said Republican Representative Steve Womack. "It's a big leadership challenge that we need to find a solution for."

Republican governance in the House has been characterized by brinkmanship over spending, with hardliners repeatedly forcing Congress to the doorstep of government shutdowns and national default while pushing demands for spending cuts and conservative policy changes that Democrats reject.

Some moderate Republicans say hardline members of the House's 219-212 Republican majority are not taking into account the need for bipartisanship, while Democrats hold the Senate and presidency.

Johnson will soon try to fund the government through the remainder of fiscal 2024, which ends Sept. 30, with bipartisan legislation that hardliners adamantly oppose.

Republican lawmakers predict the speaker will avoid hardline efforts to block spending bills by dispensing with legislative rules and pursuing passage by a supermajority that would require Democratic support.

The result could be legislation that passes with more Democratic than Republican votes, which lawmakers say could further erode Johnson's standing.

Massie warned that Republicans were abandoning the leverage needed to enact conservative policies.

Representative Mike Simpson, a senior appropriator, said bipartisan negotiations are moving forward on spending bills.

"The question is, can we get them passed? That's the big question," the Idaho Republican said.

Womack, another senior appropriator, also said he is concerned about the success of spending legislation.

"We're going to have to find the mojo to get these things across the finish line, and these are some difficult discussions we're having," the Arkansas Republican said.

Asked whether Johnson seemed to be up to the job, he replied: "He will, eventually. Yeah, we'll get it done."

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)