‘Watch your back’: Speaker Johnson squares off with Schumer

When Chuck Schumer and Mike Johnson talked one-on-one for the first time recently, the Senate majority leader urged the new speaker to take a bipartisan approach ahead of a chaotic fall spending fight.

It’s safe to say that Johnson isn’t listening.

The Louisiana Republican on Thursday used his first major legislative push — a $14 billion bill to shore up Israel’s defense against Hamas — to flex his conservative credentials rather than show goodwill toward his Democratic counterpart on a mutual priority.

By muscling through the Israel bill that slashed a key Democratic priority, Johnson sent a clear message to the Senate leader he’ll have to work with for at least another year: He’s fine thumbing his nose at Schumer to help keep the House GOP as united as possible. It’s an approach that may prove difficult for Johnson to maintain.

“His first major legislative effort was not bipartisan at all. And I think he’s going to learn the hard way that that doesn’t work,” Schumer said in an interview Thursday. “The president already said he’d veto it. I said I wouldn’t put it on the floor and McConnell didn’t go for it.”

The New Yorker cited Johnson’s past words from his springtime vote to raise the debt ceiling, in which the future speaker stated that he voted yes in part because Republicans’ control in Washington is limited: “I hope he remembers that sentence as he moves forward. I want to work with him. I want to try.”

Most Democratic and Republican senators are still getting up to speed on the little-known Johnson. But House Republicans, on the influential right flank and beyond, are praising their new leader for playing hardball on Israel aid rather than trying to jam the Senate with a more bipartisan Israel bill without the rest of the Senate’s demands, like Ukraine, which Schumer might have found harder to reject.

“[Schumer’s] going to have to haggle with the House,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), one of 18 incumbents who sit in districts that President Joe Biden won. “He can meet us halfway.”

The speaker, who’s held the gavel just nine days and faces a long list of deadlines ahead, now faces a leadership-defining choice. Johnson can accept that he’ll be forced into dealmaking mode with Schumer soon — whether he wants it or not. Or he can keep drawing as hard a line as possible against the eventual pull of compromise, on aid and government funding, ahead of the Nov. 17 shutdown deadline.

Schumer called the House GOP’s Israel aid plan “not serious,” but Johnson’s allies are ecstatic to see their new leader pick a fight with Democrats, led by the highest-ranking Jewish government official in U.S. history, in a way that former Speaker Kevin McCarthy rarely did.

The most right-leaning GOP speaker in recent memory is also standing against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who aligns with Schumer in favor of a big aid package for both Israel and Ukraine. Still, Johnson quietly sat with McConnell for about 45 minutes on Wednesday before attending a more high-profile confab with the entire Senate GOP, according to a person familiar with the meeting. It was the first of what will become regular meetings between McConnell and Johnson.

an imbalanced dynamic

It’s more than just aid to Israel, Ukraine and other nations in crisis that promises to drive political wedges between Johnson and Schumer. Washington is just 14 days from its next shutdown cliff, not to mention just-as-contentious deadlines on the farm bill and foreign surveillance policy later this year.

The Louisiana Republican has moved to embrace Ukraine aid — but only for the price of enacting stricter border enforcement, a stance McConnell shares. But Johnson is refusing to combine Israel and Ukraine, as both Senate leaders would like.

Senate Democrats say Schumer is aware of the pressure the new speaker is under, with a slim majority and the ever-present threat of being ousted at any time.

“Chuck’s very politically astute, so I’m sure he understands what [Johnson’s] dealing with. Now, whether he’s amicable to that or not, that’s another thing,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who serves on Schumer’s leadership team.

Further complicating matters, however, is the imbalanced dynamic between the two men leading Congress into this fall’s high-stakes negotiations. Johnson is a relative neophyte to the spotlight of Hill leadership, while Schumer is a former party committee chair and one of the most experienced hands in politics.

Schumer is also a deal-maker on issues big and small: Most of the Senate’s big bills last year were bipartisan, while Johnson has yet to clinch a major aisle-crossing deal.

So GOP senators had some advice for Johnson as he deals with Schumer. John Cornyn (R-Texas) offered the speaker memorable counsel in an interview: “Watch your back.”

the x-factor status

Schumer talked by phone last week with Johnson, who “didn’t answer one way or the other” in response to Schumer’s bipartisan entreaties, according to the Democratic leader.

“Mike is obviously relatively unknown to a lot of them,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.). “Mike knows a lot more about Schumer than Schumer knows about Mike.”

That X-factor status gives Johnson some air of mystery in his dealings with Schumer, now in his seventh year as Democratic leader. Johnson’s allies say he is quickly finding his footing on the tightrope he must walk as ringmaster of the House GOP circus. They point proudly to his strategy on the Israel aid bill — fulfilling the White House’s $14.3 billion request for Israel aid but cutting IRS funds from Biden’s signature policy bill.

That’s important for him to establish a negotiating position and get out of the gate quickly without facing an internal reckoning. (The Congressional Budget Office found that the GOP’s bill would add billions of dollars to the deficit, but most Republicans are ignoring the nonpartisan scorekeeper.)

At the same time, he created about the most politically toxic bill that Democrats could have imagined. Even the White House had to whip against the GOP bill to prevent a mass defection of Democrats; ultimately only 12 voted yes.

“This was an easy one he could have done” differently, said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a centrist who ultimately voted no on the package, after calling it a tough vote personally. “I wish he would have not done that.”

Yet that’s the precise identity House Republicans want in their newly crowned speaker. Weeks after a ultra-conservative-led rebellion took out McCarthy for the simple act of avoiding a shutdown by accepting help from Democrats, Johnson and his backers are focused on what can pass their side of the Capitol rather than how to reach common ground in divided government.

Their aim for the next few weeks: Passing the most conservative bills possible — from Israel aid to the GOP’s standalone spending measures that were abandoned under McCarthy — to establish trust in the conference. Those purely political exercises, they hope, will be enough to keep the party’s far-right at bay once Johnson has to entertain the kind of Democratic deal-making that dislodged Johnson’s predecessor.

“Mike is a guy that you can get along with. But if Chuck thinks he’s gonna push him around, he’s gonna find he can’t,” said Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), a former House member who at times helps Republicans in both chambers find consensus.

‘more unpredictable’

Whether Johnson’s bet that he can buy more GOP goodwill than his predecessor pays off is another question entirely. Routine business is getting harder as the end of the year approaches, not easier.

And Democratic worries are growing that an inexperienced speaker at a time of crisis could exacerbate congressional dysfunction, with few big bills likely to pass beyond government funding and raising the debt ceiling.

“The inexperience and current extremism of Speaker Johnson doesn’t give anyone advantage. More unpredictable, less able to perform,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said.

The Senate will move forward on a more sweeping Israel-Ukraine bill, hoping to run up the vote total and pressure Johnson. Johnson’s members will continue to tout his early strategy of delivering a right-leaning bill as negotiating from a “position of strength,” in the words of Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.).

Eventually, though, Armstrong and the Senate Democratic leader agree on one thing. Whatever becomes law “needs 60 votes in the Senate and the president’s signature,” the GOP leadership ally put it.

Schumer was even more succinct: “He can make a proposal on whatever he wants. But to actually put something on the floor and get it passed: It has to be bipartisan.”

By muscling through the Israel bill that slashed a key Democratic priority, Johnson sent a clear message to the Senate leader he’ll have to work with for at least another year.  

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