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Government shutdown, fundraising some of obscure congressman’s biggest challenges

WASHINGTON: Inexperienced and untested, the new speaker of the US House of Representatives faces a baptism of fire as he contends with a pile-up of deadlines, a razor-thin majority and a raucous right wing that is unlikely to allow him an extended honeymoon period. Mike Johnson — a committed Donald Trump acolyte and an instinctive fiscal and social conservative to his core — almost certainly harbors ambitions to drastically rein in spending and government regulation.

But his first days as speaker are brimming with more immediate business, chiefly averting a government shutdown that will bite on Nov 17 unless he can find a compromise with the Democratic-controlled Senate. President Joe Biden is also seeking rapid action on a $106 billion security package that couples additional aid for Ukraine and the Zionist entity with increased spending on US border security — the latter a key concern for congressional Republicans.

Johnson’s good friend and fellow Republican lawmaker Chris Smith described him as a man of “deep faith and principle who knows how to get things done.” “Here in the House, Mike’s experience as vice chairman of the Republican conference shows that he has what it takes to unite House Republicans so we can continue our work,” he said.

The staunch Donald Trump loyalist, who on Wednesday was elected speaker of the US House of Representatives, was the chief architect in Congress of legal efforts to overturn the Republican leader’s 2020 election defeat to President Joe Biden. An unapologetic opponent of reproductive rights and an outspoken advocate for tough immigration controls, Johnson climbed quickly through the ranks of Republican politics, where his conservative voting record propelled him to a junior leadership position.

“We’re going to serve the people of this country. We’re going to restore their faith in Congress, this institution of government. America is the last, best hope of man on the Earth,” he told reporters at a news conference after his nomination, flanked by jubilant colleagues. “Abraham Lincoln said it, Ronald Reagan used to remind us all the time, and we’re here to remind you of that, again.”

But Johnson, 51, was far from anyone’s first choice for the job, having stumbled into his unlikely leadership role almost by default as the last credible Republican standing in a bruising three-week contest. The policy-oriented technocrat’s obscurity was seen as a boon in his election as he was one of the few hopefuls who had managed to climb the ranks in Washington without making enemies of other Republicans.

‘Well-respected’

“Mike is one of those people who gets along with everybody and he’s well-respected,” Colorado Republican Ken Buck told CNN. But that advantage could be his biggest hurdle when it comes to governing, as he faces the challenge of building relationships with senators on both sides of the upper chamber of Congress who could barely pick him out of a crowd.

He will also have to corral a party riven by factionalism and reeling from a drawn-out public implosion that has damaged the Republican brand as he seeks to avoid the kind of schisms that led to his predecessor’s downfall. He has already begun the healing, winning the support of Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, the chief instigator of the coup against previous speaker Kevin McCarthy.

“If you don’t think that moving from Kevin McCarthy to ... Mike Johnson shows the ascendance of this movement and where the power in the Republican Party truly lies, then you’re not paying attention,” Gaetz told the conservative War Room internet show. But in a sign of the choppy waters ahead, Gaetz told reporters separately that the new speaker would be prohibited from repeating what the hard right considered one of McCarthy’s sins — throwing multiple issues into giant “omnibus” bills that force all-or-nothing votes, allowing the leadership to block dissent on contentious issues.

Mistaken identity

Critics say his predecessor McCarthy was ousted mainly because he relied on governing by “continuing resolution” — the stop-gap bills that essentially kick the can down the road by keeping the country ticking over at current spending levels. He will likely be given leeway to get through the fast-approaching November shutdown deadline with another legislative band aid, perhaps until mid-January. But conservatives yearning for smaller government will soon expect him to get back to budgeting through the committee process, where every lawmaker gets to debate spending levels and make their case for cuts. And then there’s the delicate issue of fundraising. Johnson has some catching up to do to transform from a middling money-spinner to the head of the kind of cash-cow operation that made McCarthy friends all over Washington. In the meantime, the name of the game will be breaking bread with friends and adversaries alike, and introducing himself to an American public that has almost no idea who he is. – AFP

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