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In a raucous vote after weeks of chaos, House GOP picks a mild-mannered speaker

Boos and cheers said it all during vote for Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson responds to colleagues on the floor during Wednesday’s session electing him as speaker.
Mike Johnson responds to colleagues on the floor during Wednesday’s session electing him as speaker. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Three weeks after it all began, House Republicans stopped stepping on the rakes they placed around themselves, electing Rep. Mike Johnson speaker of the House. For now.

Johnson, a social conservative from Louisiana who previously led the Republican Study Committee, was elected on a 220-209 vote, winning unanimous support from all the Republicans voting Wednesday — something his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, never managed to do in the 15 ballots it took to elect him in January.

The vote ended weeks of self-imposed embarrassment for the GOP, but it doesn’t ensure smooth sailing from here on out.

A constitutional lawyer by trade and an evangelical Christian, Johnson is a fierce abortion opponent who voted against certifying Joe Biden’s election. His conservative bona fides and mild-mannered demeanor helped the dark horse candidate unite his fractious party.

Unity was the image Republicans strived to project as they headed to the floor to fill the role left vacant after McCarthy’s ouster.  Emerging from a meeting room shortly after 10 o’clock Tuesday night, Republicans marched out chanting, “Mike! Mike!” 

They repeated the chant again on the floor Wednesday when Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik gave her nominating speech.

The hopes of some, expressed in op-eds and social media posts, that Democrats might have a fit of bipartisan bonhomie seemed particularly naïve during Stefanik’s speech, which drew repeated grumbles and boos from the other side of the aisle.

Rising to nominate Hakeem Jeffries, Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar noted the shift in mood as he addressed Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick T. McHenry. “I notice a little bit more of a smile on your face today than we’ve seen in the past,” Aguilar said. It was one of the few lines Wednesday that drew bipartisan applause as McHenry sheepishly smiled and waved.

“Pat, Pat, Pat!” one Republican could be heard chanting in jest.

Aguilar then shifted to make his own partisan jabs at the GOP, eliciting an inverse of Stefanik’s speech: Democrats cheering, Republicans booing.

“This has been about who can appease Donald Trump,” Aguilar said, calling Johnson an “architect” of the Electoral College count objections on Jan. 6, 2021.

“Damn right!” Rep. Anna Paulina Luna shouted in response.

At the impromptu news conference late Tuesday night, a reporter asked Johnson about the 2020 presidential election, prompting boos from the previously ebullient Republican crowd behind him. “Next question, next question,” he said.

Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, an idiosyncratic Freedom Caucus Republican, had cited Jim Jordan and Steve Scalise’s refusal to say Biden won the 2020 election for refusing to back them in earlier attempts to pick a speaker, but he voted for Johnson on Wednesday.

For his part, Johnson struck a bipartisan tone with his inaugural speech as speaker, gently ribbing some of his colleagues instead of trying to land political haymakers.

Heading into the 2022 midterms, Republicans expected to be swept into power by a red tsunami. Instead, a crimson neap tide just barely pushed them into power with a 222-212 majority. While McCarthy eventually won the speakership on the 15th ballot, he never really won control of his fractious party, and after nine months and a last-minute deal with Democrats to avert a government shutdown through Nov. 17, McCarthy was tossed out.

In the three weeks since then, a large number of Republicans had refused to go along with the majority of the conference every time the party voted internally to nominate someone to be speaker. Scalise dropped his doomed nomination before attempting a floor vote, while Jordan’s futility was dutifully written into the Congressional Record, thrice. On Tuesday, after whittling down a field of nine candidates, the GOP seemed to pick Majority Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota, but his support immediately began to crumble as Trump took to social media to rally opposition against him. His nomination barely lasted five hours.

The party immediately called for another conference jaw session and vote, and in the end, Johnson emerged victorious.

Perhaps a bit punch-drunk after weeks of mayhem, members on both sides went out of their way to preface their floor votes on Wednesday with either partisan barbs or fun bon mots.

“Happy wedding anniversary to my wife,” Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., shouted before voting for Jeffries for speaker in a not-so-subtle dig at Johnson, who voted against codifying gay marriage last year. 

“With the 217th pick in the race for speaker, the gentleman from Arkansas selects Mike Johnson,” Rep. Steve Womack later declared.

Democrats seemed to accept the election results of Wednesday’s vote before it even began. Most of the absences in the chamber were on their side.

After gaveling the session in, McHenry, the acting speaker pro tempore these past three weeks, turned things over to the deposed speaker, McCarthy, who introduced a guest chaplain to lead the opening prayer.

“Good and gracious God … draw near to these members of Congress, remind them of their calling to serve the true common good,” intoned Rev. Jeremy Leganski of Immaculate Conception Church in Elmhurst, Ill. “May they decide all things for the well-being of all and may they never turn aside from your will. May all that they do begin from you and by you be brought to completion.”

The night before the vote, maintenance workers took down a plaque outside the speaker’s office with McCarthy’s name. Wednesday morning, others filed in with handcarts to take away the previous occupant’s furniture.  

Johnson isn’t as famous as some of the men he beat out. Asked Wednesday morning about working with him, Senate Appropriations ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, told CNN she didn’t know him but would Google him.

Her colleague, Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, said she and other Republicans would like what they found. “He’s inquisitive. He’s thoughtful. He plays well with others. Very conservative,” he said. “And he does some wonderful impersonations.”

Johnson will now try to avoid impersonating the last three Republicans to hold the gavel, who all faced revolts from their own party that precipitated their declines. 

Niels Lesniewski, Laura Weiss, Mary Ellen McIntire and Nina Heller contributed to this report.

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