Opinion | For House Republicans, failure is the only option

House Speaker Mike Johnson has been on the job for barely more than 100 days, but he has already accomplished the impossible. He has made Kevin McCarthy look like a legislative genius.

The Louisiana Republican has amassed a record of failure and dysfunction in just three months that his predecessor labored for nine months to achieve. And, arguably, McCarthy never managed to match the level of combined incompetence and destructiveness that Johnson attained this week alone. In the space of just three days, Johnson:

  • Killed a bipartisan border-security bill, the toughest in decades, that he himself had demanded and senators had painstakingly negotiated.
  • Killed off, at least for now, funds to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia’s invasion and Taiwan defend itself against China.
  • Tried to pass military aid to Israel but watched it go down to defeat on the House floor.
  • Held a vote to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas after months of build up — only for it to fail in a dramatic floor vote.

The last happened Tuesday in ugly fashion. At a closed-door Republican caucus meeting in the morning, Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mark Green (R-Tenn.), who had shepherded the articles of impeachment, said Mayorkas had to be impeached because “this reptile has no balls to resign.”

The reptilian reference, first reported by Politico’s Olivia Beavers, evoked an age-old antisemitic trope. Biden White House official Ian Sams protested the “vile” remark about Mayorkas, who is Jewish, adding a line about “reptilian men” from the American Jewish Committee’s glossary of antisemitic terms.

The vulgarity continued at a news conference later in the morning attended by two dozen House Republicans, including Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik. Ostensibly about a resolution, backed by more than 60 House Republicans, declaring that “Donald J. Trump did not engage in insurrection,” it devolved into the lawmakers hurling insults at the few journalists (including me) who had come to hear them.

Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.), who last year distinguished himself by referring to “colored people” on the House floor, addressed the “cowardly” journalists in the room: “You don’t have the balls to write the truth!”

The House Republicans’ ongoing obsession with testicles (Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Nancy Mace of South Carolina have both previously suggested that their male colleagues might lack these organs) is best left to the Freudians. But this much is for sure: On rare occasions when a House Republican does show the courage of his convictions, he is sure to face a political emasculation.

Such was the case with Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) on Tuesday night. A Princeton and Georgetown-educated PhD, a Marine veteran and a committee chairman, he had warned his GOP colleagues not to “pry open the Pandora’s box of perpetual impeachment,” and he became the decisive third Republican vote against Mayorkas’s impeachment, dooming the effort. As Johnson held the vote open and Democrats howled for the vote to be closed with cries of “regular order,” Republican colleagues encircled Gallagher along the back aisle.

Georgia’s Greene got in his face, clearly threatening him. Tennessee’s Green screamed at him, wagging his index finger. Reps. Virginia Foxx (N.C.), Jodey Arrington (Tex.) and Guy Reschenthaler (Pa.) joined in the berating — while Greene placed a call on her phone. From the first row of the gallery, I could see Gallagher, sometimes with mouth agape, sometimes swallowing hard, as he took in the abuse. In the well, Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Tex.), pointing at the siege of Gallagher, urged Johnson to stall further. But the slashing gesture Greene made indicated it was all over.

The first impeachment of a Cabinet officer in a century and a half had failed in a 215-215 tie; for procedural reasons, a lone Republican switched his vote so that he could call for a revote. “On this vote, the yeas are 214 and nays 216,” Johnson said. “The resolution is not adopted.”

Democrats cheered. Johnson licked his lips.

Watching the one-vote defeat, the expelled George Santos asked his former Republican colleagues in a post on X, formerly Twitter: “Miss me yet?”

Responded Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.): “I’ve never missed Santos more. Whoever he is.”

On Wednesday, Rep. Tom Massie (R-Ky.) posted on social media that “getting rid of Speaker McCarthy has officially turned into an unmitigated disaster.

Johnson tried to be philosophical when he faced reporters the morning after the twin failures on the House floor. “Democracy is messy,” he told reporters, and “we’re governing here — sometimes it’s messy,” and “you’re seeing the messy sausage making,” and “the process is messy sometimes.”

The House, which began its workweek Monday evening, ended its week Wednesday morning (Democrats had a retreat scheduled), leaving lawmakers just four working days before the next deadline to keep the government funded on March 1. Deadlines to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act come shortly thereafter. And lawmakers have made no discernible progress on any of this.

Instead, they’re using the legislative process to propagate disinformation. On the House GOP leadership’s floor schedule for this week was a resolution by Greene censuring Rep. Ilhan Omar — again — for remarks Greene said were “treasonous.” House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) accused the Somali-born Omar (D-Minn.) of “a direct violation of her oath of office,” saying “she should resign in disgrace.”

Republicans were basing their case on a translation they found somewhere online of remarks Omar made in Somali, in which she purportedly said she and other Somali Americans are “Somalians first, Muslims second,” and that the U.S. government “must follow our orders.” But actual translations showed that Omar had said nothing like this.

The fraudulent censure resolution didn’t get a vote this week, but Greene is still hopeful. “I haven’t pulled it,” she told a few of us.

Also awaiting action is a one-sentence resolution, sponsored by Gaetz, saying that Trump “did not engage in insurrection” — because House Republicans say so! The resolution was brief, but the event rolling it out went on for more than an hour and included a mention of just about every conspiracy theory of the Trump era, and earlier.

“Russia collusion hoax.”

“Hunter Biden’s laptop.”

The purpose, to the extent Republicans had one, was to attack the assembled journalists (“What we have seen is mass hysteria caused by you, the reckless leftist media,” Rep. Andy Biggs(R-Ariz..) informed us) and to rewrite the history of Jan. 6, 2021.

“President Trump and his supporters were vilified for doing nothing more than exercising their First Amendment rights,” Rep. Diana Harshbarger (R-Tenn.) said of the riot, which injured 140 police officers and resulted in several deaths.

“There was not an insurrection that took place on Jan. 6,” Rep Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) said of the mob that sacked the Capitol to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s win.

Rep. Eric Burlison (R-Mo.) said Jan. 6-style events occurred all the time when he was in the Missouri legislature: “We would call what happened on that day ‘a Wednesday’ in the Missouri Capitol.”

Greene made clear that she didn’t know what the word “insurrection” meant, because she complained to the “liars” in the media: “When Joe Biden was inaugurated and this entire Capitol complex was surrounded with 30,000 National Guard troops, none of you stood there and called that an insurrection. Oh, no. You all stayed silent.”

And Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) declared that, once House Republicans pass their resolution, it will no longer be permissible for “sociopath” journalists like us to call the insurrection an insurrection. “Once we have this on the floor, if you continue to push this, you guys are all going to be guilty of breaching House privileges, okay?” she said. “Because we’re saying that it didn’t happen.”

And if House Republicans say so …

Johnson was only marginally more coherent in his news conference with GOP leaders Tuesday morning, as he tried to explain why he had just killed the border-security bill he had been demanding.

“We are insistent that it’s not necessary” to change immigration law, he said. House Republicans passed a border bill, H.R. 2, the Secure the Border Act, and “those provisions are important, but, again, they’re not necessary. … The authority exists” already to secure the border.

But a moment later, he contradicted himself. “I’ve been urging the Senate, urging the White House to consider the provisions of H.R. 2. Why? Because our Secure the Border Act has the necessary components to solve the problem.”

Also necessary? Impeaching Mayorkas. “It’s an extreme measure,” he told us. “But extreme times call for extreme measures.”

Tuesday afternoon, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who had supported the border-security legislation as it was negotiated over the past few months, formally acknowledged what had been obvious since the text of the compromise was released Sunday. “It’s been made pretty clear to us by the speaker that it will not become law,” he said.

And Johnson apparently has no backup plan now that he has killed the border-security deal. Leaving the GOP caucus meeting Tuesday, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) told a group of us that it’s “unacceptable” to do nothing about the border. Of GOP leadership, he said: “I just wish they … had a plan.”

They had no plan — not for the border, not for Israel and Ukraine aid, and not, it turned out, for impeaching Mayorkas. GOP leaders had showed how seriously they took impeachment by naming Greene herself as one of the impeachment managers who would argue the case in the Senate. In another display of their sobriety, the official impeachment report accompanying the articles of impeachment said impeachment was “the process of deporting Secretary Mayorkas.” Mayorkas, a naturalized U.S. citizen, immigrated from Cuba as a child.

Rep. Tom McClintock (Calif.), one of the three Republicans opposed to the impeachment “stunt,” as he called it, warned his colleagues in a memo and in speeches in the caucus meeting and on the floor that they had failed “to identify an impeachable crime that Mayorkas has committed” and that their actions would “distort the Constitution” and “shatter the separation of powers.”

“I think that it lowers the grounds of impeachment to a point where we can expect it to be leveled against every conservative Supreme Court justice, every future Republican president and Cabinet member,” he told a group of us.

Greene responded with the usual threats. Her colleagues “better pay attention to what the American people will think of them if they don’t vote to impeach,” she warned.

House Republicans took their articles to the floor without even bothering to correct errors of fact, such as the part blaming Mayorkas for a policy changed by the State Department. The debate, three hours in all, was as desultory as the articles. Only six Republican lawmakers and 10 Democrats were seated when the clerk read aloud the articles.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) remarked that Trump “told everyone to drink bleach and take horse medicine during covid.”

Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Tex.) retorted that McGovern had “one of the worst cases of Trump derangement syndrome.”

Greene alleged that Mayorkas facilitated “the complete invasion of our country by criminals, gang members, terrorists, murderers, rapists.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) replied, “She also thinks Jewish space lasers cause wildfires.”

Fallon called Mayorkas “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” and said “we must fire this bum, this second coming of Benedict Arnold.”

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) undermined the whole case for impeachment when he acknowledged that Mayorkas “is just obeying the orders of his boss.”

And Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.), with Old Testament fire, foretold: “On this day, it shall be written in the historical record of the people’s House that … Mayorkas has been impeached. So shall it be written. So shall it be done.”

The prophecy didn’t age well.

The debate over aid to Israel wasn’t any more elevated. Opposition from far-right Republicans blocked GOP leaders from bringing the vote under normal House rules. So Johnson’s team moved to suspend the rules, which required a two-thirds vote. But Democrats opposed the bill because it was a naked effort by Johnson to bury border security and aid to Ukraine.

Rep. Michael Lawler (R-N.Y.) called Democrats “crazy” and “foolish.”

Palestinian American Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “genocidal maniac.”

Finally, they called the votes. Eighty-six-year-old Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), recovering from a car accident, came in a massive neck brace. Seventy-six-year-old Rep. Al Green (D-Tex.), who had just undergone surgery, was wheeled in wearing hospital clothes and no shoes.

But the worst casualty was the Republican whip operation, which miscounted. Johnson buttonholed Gallagher privately in the cloakroom and, when that failed, the public berating of Gallagher on the House floor began. Johnson huddled with aides, but they came up empty.

First, the impeachment vote failed. Then, minutes later, the Israel vote failed.

“I don’t understand why they don’t count the votes,” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) said after the debacle.

In his morning-after session with reporters, the rookie speaker blamed Biden. He blamed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). He blamed House Democrats. He blamed it on “the body itself and the place where we’ve come in this country.” He blamed everybody and everything, in short, but himself. “I don’t think that this is a reflection on the leader,” Johnson said.

That might be the most ominous sign of all.

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