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The leadership strength of Mike Johnson and Mitch McConnell is tested in Congress


It was a bruising week for Republican leaders in Washington. In the House, Speaker Mike Johnson led his party to failures on two high-profile measures - the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and a foreign aid bill for Israel. And in the Senate, Republicans' chaotic response to a bipartisan border deal fueled frustration with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. NPR political correspondent Susan Davis is here in the studio to talk about it. Hi, Sue.


SHAPIRO: Let's start with the House. Why can't Speaker Johnson move his own party's legislative agenda?

DAVIS: Look. Speaker Johnson has a couple more votes, but he doesn't really have a governing Republican majority. He's either had to rely on Democrats to get must-pass bills through. And when it comes to these strictly partisan things like impeachment, he needs near-total unity. Just three Republican lawmakers tanked impeachment this week. And Johnson was asked about his leadership failures. And this was his response.


MIKE JOHNSON: Democracy is messy. We live in a time of divided government. We have a razor-thin margin here, and every vote counts. Sometimes, when you're counting votes and people show up when they're not expected to be in the building, it changes the equation.

DAVIS: So, you know, points for candor, but admitting you don't know where the votes are going to be on any given time isn't exactly a reassuring message to the rank and file.

SHAPIRO: Right. Where is the criticism of Johnson coming from, and what does it look like?

DAVIS: You know, some of it is buyer's remorse. Thomas Massie is a Republican from Kentucky - said this week that throwing out former Speaker Kevin McCarthy was a, quote, "unmitigated disaster." Some of it's from hard-right conservatives who are mad that Johnson, like McCarthy, has relied on Democrats to pass legislation. One of them, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, has already said she could bring a motion to vacate Johnson from the speakership if he keeps relying on Democrats to do something like pass a Ukraine aid bill. Side note here, Ari, there is zero chance a Ukraine aid bill can get through the House without Democrats. So there's a lot of pressure still to come on Johnson. And some of it's just from more mainstream conservatives who are just embarrassed by the state of things. One of them is Garret Graves of Louisiana.

GARRETT GRAVES: There's a lot that needs to be done in terms of, you know, kind of righting the ship and, I think, reinstilling confidence back in the American people that we can govern.

DAVIS: So there's a ton of finger pointing among Republicans for who's to blame. But ultimately, it rests to the speaker to sort of resolve all of this. He hasn't proven able to do it, but he still has the support of former President Trump, which carries a lot of weight with these members.

SHAPIRO: And on the Senate side of Congress, things don't look too much more organized. Republicans rejected the very border compromise deal that they said was necessary to win their votes in the first place. What's the dynamic like there?

DAVIS: The political timing here is just terrible for Republicans. They're being asked to vote for a bill that Donald Trump doesn't like, that their base doesn't like. And all of this is happening just as their own primary elections are starting to ramp up. It's just not a good political place for any Republican to be in right now, even if the policy underneath it all is something most of them actually support. McConnell's sort of past rock-solid ability to keep his party together at tough moments hasn't really come through here. It's been true on the border. And I think it's been acutely true about Ukraine aid. He has spent months trying to rally support within his party for this aid package, and he hasn't been able to move the needle. And the Senate is going to try to finally resolve this in the coming days.

SHAPIRO: Are senators questioning McConnell's leadership in the same way that in the House, they're questioning Johnson's?

DAVIS: Yes, but it's mostly the same voices that have been questioning it since the 2022 midterms, when Republicans didn't win a majority. Remember; 10 Republican senators voted against him as leader back then. One of them, Ted Cruz of Texas, this week said point blank he thought it was time for new leadership. McConnell sort of shrugged that off and said, everyone knows Ted Cruz isn't a fan. Another one of those senators is Josh Hawley from Missouri. And he was asked this week about how he feels about leadership. And just take a listen to him. You can hear the disdain and sarcasm in his voice.


JOSH HAWLEY: Oh, I think Republican leadership has shown they're a well-oiled machine. I mean, they just do great. I mean, it couldn't be improved upon. Absolutely. Have it all together. You know, very, very impressive.

SHAPIRO: He just keeps going.

DAVIS: Yeah. Ouch. You know, so no, there is no immediate threat to Mitch McConnell's leadership position, but obviously, there's a lot at stake in the 2024 elections, not just for the party but this question of whether he's still going to lead them. Publicly, he says he's going to serve out his term through 2026. But Republicans won't elect their leadership until after the election. Keep in mind, though, he and his outside allies are on track to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to help the Republicans win a Senate majority this November.

SHAPIRO: That's political correspondent Susan Davis. Thanks, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.