Caught in the middle are Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who are both reeling from embarrassing setbacks.
House Republicans on Tuesday failed to muster the necessary votes for the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas or a $17.6 billion aid package for Israel, once again putting a spotlight on Johnson’s inability to shepherd his slim majority.
Meanwhile, the border deal’s collapse in the Senate has McConnell’s critics — and, privately, even some of his allies — casting new doubt on the veteran leader’s once formidable ability to corral his diverse conference.
A lion in winter?
An outspoken proponent of Ukraine aid, McConnell embraced a push last year to link tough new border policies to the foreign-aid supplemental, thus buying conservative support. He deputized conservative Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) to cut a deal.
But the deal Lankford cinched was torn to tatters in the span of 48 hours thanks to opposition from Trump, McConnell’s political nemesis. Most GOP senators — including some of McConnell’s closest allies — are expected to vote today against even debating it.
If it fails as expected, McConnell will be faced with a new challenge: Schumer’s plan is to quickly move to launch debate on a foreign aid bill that omits the border agreement.
McConnell has indicated he is likely to back such a package, viewing it as essential to backstop the Ukrainians in their fight against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s force. But it is in serious question whether he can manage — or will even try — to bring the rest of his conference along.
The backdrop is stark: McConnell’s longtime critics have been emboldened by the border deal’s collapse. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) called it a “betrayal” and is demanding new leadership. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.)
posted a meme mocking McConnell, while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has explicitly called for McConnell to step down.
“It’s not James Lankford’s fault. It’s Mitch McConnell’s fault,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said. Added Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.): “These were real tactical errors that he’s made — and, you know, I think his public opinion polls show it.”
McConnell fired back in an
exclusive interview with POLITICO. He argues that his critics “had their shot” to vote him out as leader a year ago and failed. He blamed them for the party’s confounding, boomeranging strategy over the border. And he argued that solving the problems they identified requires working with Democrats.
“The reason we’ve been talking about the border is because they wanted to, the persistent critics,” McConnell said. “You can’t pass a bill without dealing with a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate.”
McConnell, of course, has outflanked and outlasted his critics for years, and he retains the confidence of most Senate Republicans, who can’t oust him mid-term even if they want to.
Still, one senior GOP aide who admires the longtime leader said the crescendo in whispers is unmistakable: “Can Mitch continue doing this?”
“He’s been an incredibly consequential and strategic leader, always thinking about where the conference needs to be and looking around the corners,” this person said. “None of that’s happening. It’s not the same.”
The collapse of the border deal and the reaction from his critics on the MAGA right have made obvious that there is no tenable way for McConnell to remain leader if Trump is elected. And even with Trump as GOP nominee, it will be exceedingly difficult.
“That’s oil and water,” Johnson said. “That wouldn’t work very well.”
Johnson’s bad day
Johnson, meanwhile, pushed forward Tuesday with the impeachment vote in the face of numerous red flags, expressing confidence throughout the day yesterday that he had the votes to oust Mayorkas.
But those assurances evaporated as Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) — a respected former Marine officer and
committee chair — made good on threats to oppose the articles, joining Reps. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) and Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), who have long argued that policy differences aren’t grounds for impeachment.
Johnson and the rest of the GOP leadership team, meanwhile, didn’t have a firm grasp on their whip count. They appeared to assume that Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) — who’d been in the ER for surgery yesterday — wouldn’t show. But in a dramatic moment, he was wheeled into the chamber wearing scrubs to cast the decisive vote.
That spurred a last-gasp
effort to strongarm Gallagher into changing his vote, with fellow Republicans warning the Wisconsin Republican of serious blowback from the base. It didn’t work.
Tuesday’s vote isn’t the end of the Mayorkas impeachment saga: Republicans say they’ll try again when they have full attendance. Even so, it was a high-profile setback for the new speaker that was compounded by the decision to immediately press forward with a vote on the Israel aid bill, which failed to garner the necessary two-thirds margin under suspension of the rules, 250-180.
Holding a failed vote in this case might have been politically defensible, to highlight Democrats’ opposition to the Israel funding. But that message got lost amid the botched impeachment narrative.
The problems for Johnson might only snowball from here. The Mayorkas vote is casting serious doubt on any effort to impeach President Joe Biden, which has been a top priority for the House GOP’s MAGA wing. And, in about two weeks, Johnson will have to start muscling government funding bills across the floor — which is sure to exacerbate tensions with right-wingers.
Johnson, who emerged as speaker after the hard right revolted against predecessor Kevin McCarthy, has benefited in his first three months on the job from the sense that there’s no one else in the House GOP who could do any better than he has.
But if he has any more days like Tuesday, that idea might change fast.
Like this content? Consider signing up for POLITICO’s Playbook newsletter.