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Speaker Johnson gets warm welcome from Senate GOP

Sen. John Kennedy expects House GOP to give his fellow Louisianan ‘leeway’

Speaker Mike Johnson, second from left, is escorted to the Senate Republicans’ lunch on Wednesday by, from left, Sens. Ron Johnson, Ted Budd and Rick Scott.
Speaker Mike Johnson, second from left, is escorted to the Senate Republicans’ lunch on Wednesday by, from left, Sens. Ron Johnson, Ted Budd and Rick Scott. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

New Speaker Mike Johnson received a warm reception on Wednesday when he met Senate Republicans, many of whom had little or no past interaction with the Louisianan.

“I was very impressed with him. Obviously, he’s got a tough job ahead of him,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said after exiting a Senate GOP lunch where Johnson, the special guest, received two audible rounds of applause. “He’s willing to admit that he’s got a learning curve involved here, but I think people are going to come to be impressed with him.”

Johnson, a fourth-term House member who was vaulted to the speakership from the role of vice chair of the Republican Conference, was said by senators to acknowledge that his personal policy preferences may not always reflect the will or the needs of the conference.

“For most of us, it’s the first time we’ve ever interacted him in an extended setting,” Rubio said. “It’s not just the way he conducts himself, but he’s sort of pretty realistic and [has a] clear-eyed view of how the process works and is going to function.”

House Republicans are currently moving forward with a stand-alone foreign aid package for Israel that also seeks to cut funding for the Internal Revenue Service. That measure is setting up to be at odds with a more sweeping emergency supplemental being developed by bipartisan senators.

Sen. John Kennedy, who has long known Johnson from Louisiana GOP circles, said he knew people did not always agree with the new speaker’s personal policy preferences but the only people back home he knew who personally disliked him were because “he beat them in political races.”

“I think Mike’s gonna do a good job. And I think, to their credit, his colleagues in the House are going to give him some room, some leeway, and I think that’s a prudent approach,” Kennedy said.

In terms of Johnson getting more room to work than his ousted predecessor, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the new occupant of the speaker’s office told the Senate Republicans behind closed doors that he was aware of the need for a new continuing resolution to keep the government funded past November, and he expressed a preference for a stopgap running through mid-January.

Oklahoma Sen. Markwayne Mullin said Johnson expressed that he did “understand the unique responsibilities” of being speaker.

“He said I represent the whole conference now, and what’s the will of the conference,” Mullin said.

“This is the sacrifice you make when you go from … being a high-ranking member of the Judiciary Committee to being the speaker,” added North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer.

‘More collaborative process’

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who said he was leading Wednesday’s steering lunch in the absence of Utah Sen. Mike Lee, said the invitation to the speaker came because “I thought it was important that we get the speaker over here and have dialogue with senators. So we reached out and he agreed to come over, and I was happy to escort him over.”

“He wants to get to know senators and have a much more collaborative process,” Sen. Johnson said. “So it was a good opportunity.”

Senators also indicated that the new speaker may seek an increased level of transparency in the decision-making process than some of his predecessors in both the House and the Senate did.

Multiple senators said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not speak much during the lunch while Johnson was present, but they said that was not unusual. Kennedy said of the emerging relationship between the two top Republicans that it might not be accurate to say they disagreed on policy matters such as aid to Israel or Ukraine. McConnell has expressed support for a big package including aid to both Israel and Ukraine, as well as other national security priorities.

“I don’t expect him to love it,” Cramer said of McConnell’s view of the speaker seeking to move aid to Israel separate from aid to Ukraine. “But … he knows the limitations of Mike’s, you know, ability, given what he’s working with.”

“They disagree on process. And I understand everyone wants to talk about process. It’s sexy,” Kennedy said. “You can talk about who’s up, who’s down, who’s winning, who’s losing, you know. Is the House better than the Senate? Was the Senate smarter than the House? And I get that all that’s interesting, but it only matters in terms of how it affects the substance.”

Caroline Coudriet contributed to this report.

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