Republicans point fingers after embarrassing defeats
House Republicans are struggling to pick up the pieces after a series of crushing legislative defeats that highlighted the simmering strife within the GOP conference and triggered new attacks on GOP leaders heading into a critical election cycle.
“Last night was not a good night for Republicans in the House, and anybody who says it was is not being honest,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) told The Hill.
Republican leaders on Tuesday barreled ahead with two votes they deem crucial to the party’s messaging efforts: impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and providing military aid to Israel.
The two items could have served as messaging to counter a Senate deal that paired border reforms with aid to Israel and Ukraine, which House GOP leadership helped kill after rejecting it as inadequate.
Instead, both of the measures failed.
And in the aftermath of the floor fiasco, stunned rank-and-file Republicans are sifting through the ashes in search of who should bear the blame, dinging Democrats who rejected the Israel bill and Republicans who resigned from the House for leaving them with a razor-thin margin.
Privately, however, some Republicans are directing their ire at Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), seeing the double defeat as a byproduct of his inexperience.
“Look, you give the guy some grace because, you know, he’s newer, he wasn’t in the room and kind of getting the training to lead up to this position as we had with other Speakers,” said a GOP lawmaker granted anonymity to speak candidly. “But that was a really massive failure.”
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In the near term, the consequences of Tuesday’s failures may prove inconsequential. Johnson is already lining up votes on both the Israel and impeachment bills next week, and the potential return of Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) to Washington will help in their passage.
But the longer-term ramifications may be more damaging, as Republicans are heading into a series of high-stakes legislative battles with President Biden over Ukraine funding and federal spending, and the back-to-back losses on high-profile bills this week have eroded some confidence in the Speaker’s strategic chops.
Asked about criticism that he is inexperienced and remarks from Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who said the ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had been an “unmitigated disaster,” Johnson suggested the conference was moving in the right direction.
“Well, look, it was a mess what happened here, but we’re cleaning it up,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that 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.”
Johnson railed against Democrats for voting against Israel aid and said that the public is seeing “the messy sausage-making, the process of democracy play out.”
Not everyone, though, is assigning fault to GOP leaders — some Republicans are downplaying the pair of unsuccessful votes, spinning their shortcomings as delays rather than defeats.
“Yes, it was somewhat of an embarrassment that we apparently didn’t know what the count might be, and that we lost that by one vote … But it seems that we can get it done next week,” House Freedom Caucus Chair Bob Good (R-Va.) said.
Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) speaks to reporters as he leaves the House Chamber following the last vote series of the week on Thursday, December 14, 2023. (Greg Nash)
Johnson said his “Plan B” for Israel aid is to bring it up through a regular process next week that needs a smaller margin for success, and that the chamber will vote again on the Mayorkas impeachment articles when the GOP has the votes — likely upon the return of Scalise, who was absent due to treatment for blood cancer.
“When things don’t go right on the floor, you’ve got to examine your leadership team and figure out what went wrong,” echoed Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.). “But at the same time, you’ve got to get on to the next piece of business. You can’t overly dwell on it. I’m not.”
Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) offered another culprit: McCarthy, who resigned from Congress after his ouster in December.
“After our former Speaker left us … it kind of left us a little bit in the lurch,” Burchett said. “So I think it’ll be brought back up, and I think it’ll be successful.”
That willingness to assign blame elsewhere means that despite GOP frustrations with the votes, Johnson is unlikely to be in any immediate danger of being ousted like McCarthy was.
The unnamed GOP lawmaker added that Johnson probably gets more grace for his missteps “because there’s not an alternative, a good alternative, rather than because he’s doing a great job.”
Republican leadership opted to bring up the stand-alone Israel funding bill Tuesday despite knowing it would fail to get the two-thirds support needed to pass under a fast-track process. Conservatives opposed the exclusion of offsets in the bill, and Democratic leadership said it would oppose the legislation, criticizing the decision to delink Israel assistance from Ukraine aid as a “cynical” maneuver to undermine the Senate bill.
Johnson used the vote as an opportunity to criticize Democrats.
“There is no reason whatsoever for them to object to the contents of that bill. They’re doing it for political purposes,” the Speaker said.
But coupled with the stunning failure to impeach Mayorkas, the failed vote did more to amplify GOP dysfunction than draw distinctions with Democrats.
Ahead of the impeachment vote, two GOP lawmakers — Reps. Ken Buck (Colo.) and Tom McClintock (Calif.) — had made their plans to vote “no” public, with a handful of other Republicans keeping their cards close to their chests.
Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) quickly became the third GOP defector, casting his vote against the effort after refusing to reveal his stance all day. But Gallagher suggested GOP leadership should not have been surprised, telling conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that he “whipped ‘no’ for over a month.”
Top GOP lawmakers swarmed Gallagher on the House floor in what appeared to be an effort to convince him to change his vote.
The final straw for Republican leadership was a surprise — and stunning — appearance by Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), who was not expected to attend the vote but was wheeled into the chamber from the hospital following surgery wearing blue scrubs and tan socks.
The last-minute showing changed the math so that three Republican defections meant a tie-vote failure instead of passing by just one vote.
Johnson gaveled out the vote, 214-216, solidifying another embarrassing loss by the slim GOP majority.
“This was a total miscalculation,” the GOP lawmaker said. “It was only doubled by the fact that Mike stayed up in the chair during the whole thing, just sort of reiterating their miscalculation. It was tripled by the fact that they followed it with a suspension vote on Israel that failed. So yeah, that’s a mess.”
Johnson, for his part, acknowledged that Republicans were caught off-guard by Green, telling reporters Wednesday: “Sometimes when you’re counting votes, and people show up when they’re not expected to be in the building, it changes the equation.”
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), taking a victory lap Wednesday, said it is “not our responsibility to let House Republicans know which members will or will not be present on the House floor on any other day or in connection with any given vote.”