IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Mike Johnson is already running a coalition government in the House

The sooner the speaker admits he needs to choose between the GOP's MAGA wing and working with Democrats, the better.

House Speaker Mike Johnson’s tightrope walk took on a new level of difficulty over the weekend, as Israel faced down a retaliatory attack from Iran. While the flurry of Iranian drones and cruise missiles were almost entirely intercepted, the attack highlighted the lack of progress in the House on a supplemental funding bill that would provide U.S. military assistance to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan.

Johnson, R-La., reiterated Sunday that he would not be putting the bill — which already passed with bipartisan support in the Senate — on the House floor for a vote. Instead, he still prefers to try to cobble together a package more amenable to his mercurial caucus. I appreciate that Johnson has at least finally begun to embrace the need for Ukraine funding, despite the opposition of some of his more hard-line members. But the speaker needs to acknowledge the uncomfortable reality of his tenure: While on paper Johnson leads a Republican majority, in practice, he oversees a coalition government in all but name.

These splinter Republicans are in effect a third-party of their own that Johnson must negotiate with when drafting legislation.

As of Monday, there were 218 Republicans in the House and 213 Democrats, with four open seats due to resignations. If all members are present and voting, losing only three GOP members’ support in the face of a united Democratic caucus can kill a bill or motion. And as we’ve seen for the last 15 months, there are enough members in the GOP’s far-right faction who routinely stand in the way of passing what would normally be considered party-line votes.

These splinter Republicans — most of whom are aligned with the House Freedom Caucus — are in effect a third-party of their own that Johnson must negotiate with when drafting legislation. It’s a dynamic that has seen more “party unity” votes go down in flames for the GOP than any House majority since 1982, according to an analysis from CQ Roll Call. The dysfunction has affected Republicans leaders’ ability to pass routine bills to fund the government, let alone even conservative bills that have no chance of clearing the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Joe Biden signing them into law.

The concession from Johnson’s predecessor, former Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to stack the House Rules Committee with three hard-line conservatives — to mollify the hard right — has made the process even more difficult. The committee, which the speaker ostensibly controls, has instead become a sticking point as bills deemed not conservative enough risk stalling out. Even those rules that have made it out of committee haven’t been sure to pass, a situation that was nearly unthinkable in other recent congresses. The majority is expected to provide the votes necessary to pass rules, which set the terms of debate and bring legislation to the front of the queue, with the minority united in opposition. Instead, we’ve seen seven rules votes fail during the 118th Congress, breaking the record set during Newt Gingrich’s second term as speaker in 1999.

As a result, Johnson, like McCarthy before him, has leaned on motions to “suspend the rules,” bypassing the Rules Committee to bring legislation directly to the floor. Normally that process is used for noncontroversial bills with overwhelming bipartisan support and few dissenters. But it’s how the House finally managed to pass appropriations for the current fiscal year in March after multiple continuing resolutions, which also required suspending the rules to prevent government shutdowns. But because those votes require the support of two-thirds of members to pass, instead of a simple majority, Johnson has repeatedly relied heavily on Democrats to provide the votes necessary to perform routine government functions. It’s an untenable situation under Congress’ current structures and processes, one that the Ukraine and Israel funding question only exacerbates for Johnson.

Countries with multiparty legislatures, like the United Kingdom, can sometimes have hung parliaments where no one party holds enough seats to govern solo. In those cases, the party with the largest plurality may seek to ally with a smaller party to cobble together a minority government, like when the U.K.'s Conservative Party negotiated an agreement with the Northern Ireland-based Democratic Unionist Party in 2017.

This all means that, unlike in all but the most fragile coalition governments, Johnson is forced to try to placate not one but two minority factions.

Under the terms of such “confidence and supply” agreements, the smaller party agrees to provide the votes to elect a prime minister, then later help to ward off votes of no-confidence that could topple the government and support the basic task of funding the government. Democrats reluctantly find themselves in a remarkably similar place with Johnson, as he faces a potential “motion to vacate the chair” over Ukraine aid that would put his speakership up to a vote. When faced with the same motion, McCarthy was doomed because Democrats lined up with a small handful of rebel Republicans to support their bid to remove him.

There is no formal power-sharing agreement between the speaker and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries or the kind of shift in House rules that the New York Democrat proposed during the period of chaos after McCarthy’s ouster last year. Despite that, his caucus has still routinely put up the numbers needed to fund the government when it was clear the GOP couldn’t even pass its own spending bills. It remains to be seen whether Johnson putting up a clean Ukraine bill for an up-or-down vote would be enough to see Jeffries greenlight Democrats to save him from a Republican-led coup.

But Johnson might prefer if Democrats didn’t come to his defense. Rescuing Johnson would “cut the legs out from under him,” as The New York Times’ Catie Edmondson recently put it. “He would be viewed as the speaker only because the opposition party decided to save him.” That would render him radioactive to many House Republicans who’d otherwise support him but fear the wrath of the MAGA attacks that would follow. The very right-wing support that saw him gain the votes needed to unite the caucus and become speaker would be lost, even after his recent trip to Mar-a-Lago to kowtow to former President Donald Trump.

This all means that, unlike in all but the most fragile coalition governments, Johnson is forced to try to placate not one but two minority factions. That one of them is almost as large as his entire caucus doesn’t matter under the House’s majority-takes-all rules. Something is going to have to give here: Johnson can accept reality and lean into the fact that only the Democrats can help him get critical bills over the line, or he can remain loyal in the eyes of the far right in the name of preventing a revolt. Only one of those options, though, sees him in a position to make a real difference in how the country is governed.