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Louisiana Congressman Mike Johnson has been elected speaker of the House

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

After more than three weeks of bitter infighting that ground the House of Representatives to a halt, Republicans have elected a speaker of the House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATRICK MCHENRY: Therefore, the honorable Mike Johnson of the state of Louisiana, having received a majority of the votes cast, is duly elected speaker of the House of Representatives for the 118th Congress.

(CHEERING)

SUMMERS: The House floor erupted in cheers as Louisiana Congressman Mike Johnson won unanimous support among Republicans. Johnson's sudden rise even took his wife by surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE JOHNSON: I want to thank my dedicated wife of almost 25 years, Kelly. She's not here. We couldn't get a flight in time. This happened sort of suddenly.

SUMMERS: It truly was a rush. Johnson was selected as the party's nominee late last night and became speaker just over 14 hours later. All this after it took four tries and dozens of hours of bickering behind closed doors to reach an agreement. And now Republicans must decide if they can rebuild trust. It's a question longtime Congressman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma raised ahead of the vote.

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FRANK LUCAS: If you burn the building down, you'd have an obligation to build the next one up. We'll see how great of builders my friends are.

SUMMERS: Johnson's leadership will be put to the test almost immediately. Congress has to keep the government open and pass aid bills for Ukraine and Israel. NPR political correspondent Susan Davis has been covering this whole saga and joins me now from the Capitol. Hello, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Sue, Johnson was elected speaker with unanimous Republican support, and that is something that three previous Republican nominees could not do. How'd he make it happen?

DAVIS: You know, I don't think you can overstate how much exhaustion played a role here. Could Mike Johnson have been elected speaker 20 days ago? Probably not. I don't think anyone would make that case. But Republicans were increasingly desperate to find a candidate they could unite behind. And while Johnson doesn't have a very high national profile within the House Republican conference, he has a lot of connections among key factions.

He already had a seat at the leadership table. He has establishment trust. He sits on the Armed Services Committee. He's got the trust of the military hawks. He's got strong ties to the evangelical community, so he's got trust among the social conservatives and a warm relationship with Donald Trump, so he has the Trump allies. And I'd say personality also a factor here. He has a lot of collegial relationships and no known enemies, which is something none of the three previous nominees could say that they also enjoyed.

SUMMERS: Right. I understand that Johnson addressed the House after he won today. What did he have to say?

DAVIS: He tried to bring some levity to the moment. As you noted, he joked about why his wife couldn't make it there. He also was contrite. He said Republicans have to work to prove that they deserve their majority, that action has to start immediately. He acknowledged Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries and said he'd try to find common ground with him.

It was also notable to me that he talked about America's role in the world, saying a strong America is good for the entire world, especially considering at this moment where the U.S. is engaged in these conflicts in Ukraine and Israel. He also said his first order of business would be to bring a resolution to the floor affirming U.S. support for Israel. That received support in the chamber and was passed in the House shortly after.

SUMMERS: And, Sue, I have a lot of questions about the agenda, but there is a big thing that we've got to unpack first. I mean, I used to cover Capitol Hill, and I think I have this question, a lot of our listeners probably do - just who is Mike Johnson?

DAVIS: (Laughter) Yes. Who?

SUMMERS: Tell us more about his record, who he is, his background.

DAVIS: For the uninitiated, which is many people, the way I'd describe him is he's very - he's a conservative in the mold of Mike Pence, which is someone Americans do know, because like Pence, he's a former conservative broadcaster, and his Christian faith has been central to his story and his rise in politics. He also has a similar calm temperament. Pence used to always make this joke - I'm a conservative, but I'm not mad about it. That's sort of Mike Johnson's vibe as well.

He's been a longtime friend of conservative Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. He's known her for over 35 years. Prior to Congress, he was a constitutional lawyer. He worked on behalf of socially conservative Christian causes to oppose abortion rights and gay rights. The Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America group, which is one of the most influential anti-abortion groups in the country, praised his selection today and said he would be a leader in this - in the pro-life movement in this new era. In Congress, he formerly chaired a faction of fiscally conservative members. As I said, he already had a seat at the leadership table in a lower-ranking role as vice chair. And I'd also note he's only 51. So by congressional standards, he's also pretty young.

SUMMERS: OK, you mentioned that when he addressed the House, he namechecked Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries. But do you have a sense really - can he work with Democrats? What are his relationships like across the aisle?

DAVIS: You know, Democrats don't actually seem all that interested in working with him. They've already been attacking him as MAGA Mike. A lot of Democrats look at that very same record on abortion and gay rights as outside of the mainstream and something they can use against Republicans running in competitive districts next year. Johnson was also one of the 147 Republicans who voted against certifying Joe Biden's 2020 victory, and that was after the Capitol was attacked on January 6. So there's a baseline level of skepticism and mistrust coming from across the aisle.

SUMMERS: And big picture here, does anything fundamentally change under a Speaker Johnson compared to former-Speaker Kevin McCarthy?

DAVIS: No. And, you know, he has all the same headaches and no easy solutions. The motion to vacate that allows one member to force a referendum on the speaker vote, that vote still exists, could still be used against Johnson at some point. And he gets no honeymoon period. And there's also a lot of hard feelings among Republicans about how all this played out, so sort of smoothing relations within the party is going to be a priority. And immediately he's going to have to start negotiating on spending bills, how to avoid a government shutdown, passing aid packages to Israel and Ukraine. And all of these things, Juana, all of them, are likely to require some measure of democratic support to get them signed into law. So how he gets Democrats on board and keeps Republicans united behind him, especially as one of the least-experienced speakers in modern times, is going to be the challenge that we're all watching.

SUMMERS: All right. That is NPR political correspondent Susan Davis. Thank you, 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.
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