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House Speaker is forced to skirt his own party to pass bills

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The House overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan tax package late Wednesday, and it includes an expansion of the Child Tax Credit. The bill could only make it through the chamber because speaker Mike Johnson used a power that let him work around members of his own party and rely on Democrats to get it passed. This has become a common tactic in this Congress, and it is why, as NPR political correspondent Susan Davis explains, Republicans may have more votes, but they are not in control of the House.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: It's Democratic Whip Katherine Clark's job to know where the votes are on any given bill. It's busier than usual these days because Democratic votes have been necessary at every must-pass legislative moment in this Republican-controlled House.

KATHERINE CLARK: We are getting very used to the role of being the adults in the room.

DAVIS: Right now, Republicans have 219 members and Democrats 213. This narrow majority forced former speaker, Kevin McCarthy, and current speaker, Mike Johnson, to turn to Democrats for help to pass budget deals, stopgap funding measures to keep the government open and now tax legislation. Relying on Democrats' help cost McCarthy the speakership.

SARAH BINDER: I think there's just a lot of pressure on certainly the speaker, Johnson, and on the past speaker to keep up the facade that this is a conservative majority that can work its will.

DAVIS: Sarah Binder is a political scientist at George Washington University. As she helps me explain, there are typically two ways for a bill to come to the floor. Usually, things like spending and tax bills go through the Rules Committee.

BINDER: That type of control of the agenda is really important for a majority party to set the terms of the debate and to try to pull the bill to better reflect the views of the majority party.

DAVIS: But small factions of hard-line Republicans have opposed or defeated the rule that sets the terms of debate when it hits the floor - votes that are viewed as tests of party loyalty. This Republican majority has seen more rule votes fail than at any point since the late '90s. The other way is using the suspension calendar - a fast-track process that lets the speaker skip the Rules Committee but provides for no amendments, little debate, and a two-thirds majority to pass. Its most often used for noncontroversial items like renaming post offices.

BINDER: Really, the only route here is for the speaker to take it or leave it - put it on the floor and accept that you're going to have more Democrats voting for the bill from the minority party than you are of your own majority.

DAVIS: The ability of some Republicans to derail the party's agenda like this is infuriating to Republicans like North Carolina Congressman Patrick McHenry. There may not be a unified Republican majority, but he says there is a, quote, "governance majority." His advice for the speaker...

PATRICK MCHENRY: So get on with it. Don't extend the pain. Execute. Get the best you can with the votes that we have. And politics is the art of the possible. And in our circumstance, this is where we are.

DAVIS: The strategy to sidestep hard-liners by using the suspension calendar is angering hard-liners like Virginia Republican Bob Good, a member of the Freedom Caucus who generally opposes anything Democrats support.

BOB GOOD: We're passing legislation that the Senate will pass and the White House will sign, and that's not good for the country.

DAVIS: Good voted against the bipartisan tax legislation, along with 46 other Republicans. Their complaints ring hollow with party leaders like Tom Cole, who chairs the Rules Committee.

TOM COLE: Well, if you vote for the rule, we wouldn't have to use suspension. You know, again, some of the people that complain are some of the people that have brought down rules.

DAVIS: Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern is the top Democrat on the Rules Committee. He told NPR it's been eight months since the bill that came through the committee has been signed into law.

JIM MCGOVERN: They're incompetent. They're really not fit to govern, and they don't care about governing.

DAVIS: The possible political advantages for Democrats in this election is not lost on McGovern, who says a tumultuous Republican majority, including throwing out a speaker in the middle of the Congress, is sinking in with voters.

MCGOVERN: I think the American people - and I - not just Democrats, but independents and even a lot of Republicans, they're like, I - we want more. We want something better.

DAVIS: Some hard-liners, like Georgia's Marjorie Taylor Greene, are already threatening to force Johnson out of the speaker's office if he relies on Democrats to pass unresolved bills, including international aid for Ukraine.

Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington. 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
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.