After weeks of chaos and uncertainty, Congress elected a new speaker of the House on Wednesday, restoring the chamber to regular operations as lawmakers gear up to tackle government funding, national security aid and nutrition and agriculture legislation.
All Democrats present, including Connecticut’s congressional delegation, opposed Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., becoming the next speaker, though lawmakers in the state expressed relief that the House can now function and hold votes.
But they also shared serious concerns over Johnson’s record: opposition to codifying same-sex marriage into federal law, support for a national ban on abortion after 15 weeks, efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results and skepticism to providing more aid to Ukraine.
“Our country cannot be governed without a Speaker of the House, so I am relieved that Republicans have finally elected a new leader,” Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, said in a statement.
“However, I am deeply concerned by Congressman Mike Johnson’s record of election denial and attacks on reproductive rights,” he added. “Despite our ideological differences, I will continue working to find bipartisan compromise wherever it best serves my constituents’ interests.”
Johnson’s victory comes three weeks after Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was removed, leaving Congress without a speaker and unable to operate until a new one was elected. The vacuum at the top also created a stalemate on must-pass legislation like government funding, which runs out on Nov. 17. And it caused delays on renewing the Farm Bill, which started to expire last month, and approving aid for Ukraine, Israel and humanitarian efforts in Gaza.
Over recent weeks, Republicans nominated three other members to serve as speaker, but the party failed to unite around a single candidate until Tuesday night, when they got behind Johnson. The House voted Wednesday, 220-209, along party lines to promote him to speaker.
All five members of Connecticut’s delegation — Rep. John Larson, D-1 District; Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District; Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District; Himes; and Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District — backed Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., to be speaker.
The weeks-long speaker fight laid bare the divisions within the Republican Party, especially between hardliners and moderates. But GOP lawmakers sounded a more confident note as they unanimously backed Johnson.
“As vice chairman of our conference, he has united all of our members to speak clearly and boldly on behalf of the American people,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., said when nominating Johnson on the House floor. “And at this very moment, this Republican conference knows that we live in perilous times and the American people are hurting.”
While he most recently served as vice chairman of the House Republican conference, Johnson is still a relative newcomer in Congress: He was first elected in 2016.
As Johnson became the candidate, Hayes said, she listened to his podcast and searched his positions online to learn more. She said that “clearly we are far apart on so many things I care about,” but that she “respects the outcome of elections.”
Democrats in Connecticut are also worried about the consequences of delayed legislation, namely passing a new government funding bill in mid-November to avert the potential of a shutdown.
In a memo prior to Wednesday’s speaker election, Johnson outlined Congress’ schedule for the next year, including passing the rest of the spending bills over the next few weeks. He also suggested short-term legislation, known as a continuing resolution, that could keep the government open through January or April.
He is also aiming for the passage of the Farm Bill, a wide-ranging piece of legislation that needs reauthorization every five years, in December. Connecticut farmers and low-income families in the state depend on funding from that bill when it comes to agricultural programs as well as nutrition assistance.
Hayes, who has a leadership role on the House Agriculture Committee, called the timeline “ambitious” and “unrealistic” since her committee has yet to see draft text, hold hearings or start negotiating in earnest. She is the ranking member of the Nutrition, Foreign Agriculture, and Horticulture subcommittee.
“There’ going to be a lot of work to get the Farm Bill done,” Hayes said in an interview, adding that she wants a “Farm Bill that is the better than the last one we had, not turning back the clock 50 years.”
“With all of these competing crises, our budget appropriations bill, the Farm Bill, the lack of experience in these areas, the having to negotiate and willing to compromise,” she added, “it’s something I’m going to pay close attention to.”
As Johnson gets settled into the role, Connecticut’s delegation hopes Congress can move forward in a more bipartisan way, especially with government funding as the next big hurdle. Last month’s compromise to avoid a shutdown in the 11th hour ultimately caused the downfall of McCarthy’s speakership.
Members like Courtney said “it is not clear that path will be followed” when it comes to bipartisanship for the new speaker. And Democrats remain fearful about proposed cuts when it comes to issues like Social Security and Medicare. But they say they are keeping an open mind on Johnson’s nascent leadership.
“His tone was encouraging, but there was a lot of gaps that occurred,” Larson said in an interview. “I want to give him a little latitude sine he hasn’t been in Congress that long. This does provide an opportunity to work together.”
The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.