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Johnson moves to corral GOP hardliners as tension grows in ranks

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene had a bone to pick with the new speaker.

Ahead of the Thanksgiving recess, the Georgia Republican was frustrated that GOP lawmakers helped defeat her effort to force a vote on impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. And Greene – who has publicly insulted her Republican colleagues over their opposition to impeachment – also told CNN she was concerned about a “very serious situation” she experienced with an unnamed “male Republican of the conference,” declining to go into further details.

Normally, she would march straight into former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s office, where she often got swift results. But Greene said she had a tougher time connecting with Speaker Mike Johnson, who doesn’t have a strong relationship with the congresswoman. Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, was supposed to call her before the holiday break to listen to her concerns, according to Greene, but never did.

“I haven’t heard much from him,” Greene told CNN earlier this week.

The pair ultimately connected on Thursday ahead of another divisive vote she was planning to force on removing Mayorkas. Greene said Johnson heard her out and gave her assurances that her impeachment articles would move through committee and on to the floor. Greene then opted to pull her Mayorkas impeachment resolution – at least for now.

The episode involving Greene, the full details of which have not been previously reported, illustrates how Johnson is still learning how to wrangle the hardliners in his conference – a crucial skill for governing over a rambunctious and razor-thin majority that just got even smaller after the expulsion of indicted former Rep. George Santos. Taking a page from his predecessor’s playbook, Johnson has tried to dole out commitments and face-time to some of his potential critics. But so far, the speaker’s strategy has had mixed results.

After GOP Rep. Max Miller gave a searing public rebuke of Johnson’s recent decision-making on an Israel aid package, the speaker tried to arrange a sit-down meeting with the freshman lawmaker, presumably to smooth things over, according to sources familiar with the situation.

The Ohio Republican, however, has rebuffed Johnson’s entreaties, telling CNN he is “very upset.”

“I have chosen not to talk to him at this moment in time. He’s got his hands full with other things and until he can show me that he can lead I’m not going to waste my time sitting down with him,” Miller said.

Asked to give Johnson a grade on his performance, he said he’d give him a “D-minus. I’ve lost a lot of faith so far.”

And then there’s Texas Rep. Chip Roy, a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus who has continued to create headaches for Republican leaders with his outspoken criticism, questioning what his own party has accomplished since taking the majority.

When asked how Johnson has tried to handle the situation, Roy told CNN: “We’re still having conversations. The question here is what’s going to end up being delivered, but you know, we’ll see.”

But in other instances, Johnson has had success in taming some of the party’s loudest rebels – a sign that the speaker, who himself hails from the conservative wing of the party, has the ability to make inroads where McCarthy could not.

GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida – who led the charge to oust McCarthy as speaker – was among those personally pushing Johnson to sign off on subpoenas for Hunter and James Biden and publicly release the footage from the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, according to sources familiar with the situation. Those early moves from Johnson earned swift applause from Gaetz and the right flank.

And GOP Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, signaled this week they would no longer demand the $1.47 trillion topline spending number the caucus had been seeking all summer, saying they’d be amenable to the $1.59 trillion number agreed to in the bipartisan debt limit deal that enraged conservatives and helped lead to McCarthy’s ouster. The group even held the House hostage for days until McCarthy agreed to back off the deal he cut with the White House to seek even deeper cuts, a decision that has led to the current impasse over government spending on Capitol Hill.

“Certainly some members of the Freedom Caucus allowed their hatred of Kevin McCarthy to cloud their judgment and that misjudgment on their part weakened the Republican Conference and as a result made it harder for us to deliver conservative wins,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson, a South Dakota Republican. “So, yes, that McCarthy derangement was real.”

Veteran GOP Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma acknowledged, “It’s a challenge around here, no matter who the speaker is.”

“There is a lot of different personalities. We have a lot of different groups and points of view in the conference,” he told CNN. “But I’m very pleased with how well he is handling it.”

Internal feuds on full display

One of Johnson’s chief challenges has been dealing with the feuds in his bitterly divided party, where members have been in open warfare with one another in the wake of McCarthy’s unprecedented ouster.

Greene has been among the most difficult for Johnson on that front, openly bashing her Republican colleagues and using procedural tools to force a series of floor votes on divisive issues – tactics that have rubbed her colleagues the wrong way and put her increasingly on an island inside the GOP.

“It’s not right. She’s not a team player,” Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican who represents a district in Nebraska won by President Joe Biden in 2020, told CNN. “It’s all about individual stuff. We have a speaker, a chairman, for a reason. We should respect their word.”

After her failed attempt to force a vote on impeaching Mayorkas, Greene lashed out at GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of California on social media, using emojis to question his manhood for siding with Democrats to defeat the effort.

In an interview, Issa would not say if her tactics are helpful. “That’s really a question for the speaker. It’s a question for the majority leader. It’s a question for the whip.”

Asked if he would consider her a productive member, Issa smiled and said: “Well, she does do a lot.”

And Greene also criticized GOP Rep. Tom McClintock of California, who delivered a floor speech this week railing against Greene for being “reckless” and “shooting from the hip” with her tactics on impeachment.

“I would urge my colleagues not to undermine a legitimate impeachment inquiry with hyper partisan, hysterical bombast,” McClintock told CNN.

Greene, who was booted from the Freedom Caucus earlier this year for being too cozy with McCarthy, also repeatedly attacked Roy for opposing her resolution to censure Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib for attending an pro-Palestinian protest, which Greene referred to in her resolution as an “insurrection.”

But Greene – who McCarthy brought into the fold in an attempt to keep the congresswoman’s behavior in check – said she has no regrets about her feuds with her colleagues, a sign she has little intention of backing down.

“I’ll remind everyone that I didn’t come here to make friends,” Greene said. She said that any Republicans who are “upset could talk to me anytime they’d like.”

“My position will be that we need to be doing the jobs that we promised to our voters … instead of just talking tough on the campaign trail and then coming up here and falling apart,” Greene told CNN.

Meanwhile, there’s also some unhappiness with Johnson and the leadership team for voting against expelling Santos, even though GOP leaders did not whip the vote and encouraged members to vote their conscience.

“This is just another example of Republicans who can’t lead. And that’s really shameful,” Miller said. “The speaker and everyone in leadership knows that this man is a crook.”

Hardliners could still create headaches on spending

While the far right has signaled it is willing to soften some of their spending demands, funding will still be a sticky issue for Johnson in the months ahead.

The House GOP convened a conference meeting on Thursday morning, which has not been previously reported, to hash out their plans for upcoming spending issues – including how to handle a White House push for an Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and border security package.

GOP Rep. Bob Good of Virginia said the Freedom Caucus made clear to the speaker on Thursday what their expectations are. That includes keeping aid for Israel and Ukraine separated, a plan to cut spending and secure the border, and a commitment not to attach a reauthorization of a controversial surveillance program to the annual defense bill.

“It’s been an effective effort – in conference this morning, and in subsequent meetings that took place after conference – to let leadership know what to put some red lines on,” Good told CNN.

Roy, meanwhile, expressed his frustrations during the closed-door conference meeting, according to attendees.

“I think everyone’s on edge right now, frustration levels are higher,” California Rep. Mike Garcia said after the meeting on Thursday. “So we need to come together as a team regardless of how frustrated we are.”

Before Thanksgiving, Roy gave an impassioned speech on the House floor where he demanded his GOP colleagues give him “one thing” Republicans have done since reclaiming the House majority – comments that infuriated Republican lawmakers and gave instant ammunition to Democrats.

This week, Roy doubled down on his position, and organized a “power hour” of speeches on the House floor to continue airing his grievances. But he also made clear his beef is not personal.

“Mike is one of the finest human beings I know. He’s a good man, he’s a conservative.” Roy told CNN. “Look, whoever is in the seat has got to figure out how to manage all of this. That’s the job. So, he’ll figure it out.”

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