WASHINGTON – House Speaker Mike Johnson's margin for error in getting Republican priorities through the House is getting slimmer, complicating future votes and magnifying the ability of individual lawmakers to force concessions.
Republicans had just a 222-213 margin before Rep. George Santos of New York was expelled in a broad, bipartisan vote a week ago. Then, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California announced Thursday he would be retiring at the end of the month. He was the first speaker ever booted from the position, a victim of a process he had agreed to implement that allowed just a few defections from within the GOP ranks to oust him.
The margins before both representatives' exits allowed Republicans to lose up to four votes on a party-line ballot and still get a bill over the finish line, assuming every lawmaker was in attendance.
Now that margin is down to three votes. It could even drop to two if Democrats flip the Santos seat in a special election set for Feb. 13, which would leave their majority at 220-214.
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, is also expected to leave to begin a new job as president of Youngstown State University. It's unclear when he'll begin that job, but it's no later than March 15.
“It just makes everything harder. It's just that simple," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “You have to have perfect attendance, which is hard to get. And you have to have perfect agreement, which is damn hard to get.”
Looking ahead to 2024, the 11-term congressman from Oklahoma also noted that lawmakers during election years look to spend more time back in their congressional districts than in Washington, leaving the focus on the most basic functions of government — namely a spending bill to keep agencies and programs functioning.
“I just don't see much in the way of major legislative accomplishments next year with the margins this narrow and government this divided,” he said.
Others see a rather muted impact. After all, the GOP's narrow margin for error has already proven difficult for the party's leaders to overcome.
It took McCarthy 15 votes to finally be elected speaker once the new Congress began in January. And that was only the beginning of his troubles.
The House's staunchest conservatives brought the chamber to a standstill after he made an agreement with the White House in May that did not cut spending as much as they wanted. And then, when the House ousted McCarthy in October, Republicans cycled through three potential replacements before finally landing on Johnson.
How much harder could it really get?
“Clearly, I'd rather move from four to six than from four to two,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., of the Republican voting cushion. “But I wouldn't want to overstate the impact."
Prospects for another speaker revolt?
It takes only one member of the House to make a motion to remove the speaker, or “vacate the chair.” Johnson has generated some grumbling from members, but they also seem more sympathetic to the difficulties he faces in getting House Republicans to unite on major legislation.
Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., one of McCarthy's most trusted advisers, said the last thing many members want is to go down the same road as they did with McCarthy.
“Is there risk, yes, because you still have the one-member motion to vacate,” Graves said. “Risk, yes. Likely, no.”
He said, “There’s a lot of scar tissue within the conference.” Members who put themselves up for the job of speaker were attacked by their colleagues. Others were offended by the total number of votes they ended up getting. There's not an appetite to repeat that process.
“The other reason that I don’t think it's likely is because more people are coming to the realization that leading in this environment is really hard," Graves said.