The House GOP’s election of Rep. Mike Johnson (La.) as Speaker is likely to give an opening to social conservatives, who plan to press him on bringing anti-abortion and anti-transgender policies up for a vote.
But Republicans remain divided on those red-meat issues, and any such floor votes could endanger the swing-district members who voted for Johnson and helped the GOP clinch its majority.
Johnson is one of the most culturally conservative lawmakers to be elected Speaker in years. He honed his views as a former attorney and spokesman at the Alliance Defending Freedom, the powerhouse conservative legal group behind some states’ strict anti-abortion legislation.
And he is unabashed in his faith-driven approach to politics.
“I am a Bible-believing Christian,” Johnson said in a Thursday interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News. “Go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it, that’s my worldview. That’s what I believe in.”
For some of the most right-wing social conservative groups, expectations are high. The fact that someone with such traditional Republican principles was elected to the top post in House leadership shows that those priorities are important to the party, even if some fear the electoral consequences.
“Conservatives should be breathing a sigh of relief that we have somebody who has been so strong and courageous now with a position of authority, and can do something about actually enacting broadly popular policies that will push back on the Biden administration’s radical abortion and gender ideologies,” said Roger Severino, vice president of domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation.
Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, a super PAC that’s funded state-level anti-abortion and anti-transgender campaigns, agreed: “For the longest time social conservatives didn’t have a seat at the table. Under a Mike Johnson speakership, they’re going to at least have his ear, and at least be able to pitch him on ideas and have somewhat of an input. It’s very important.”
To be clear, the dynamics that led to the ouster of then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) haven’t changed.
Government funding is set to run out Nov. 17, and Johnson is going to need to navigate the competing priorities of centrist Republicans and staunch conservatives.
Republicans have tucked controversial policy riders in almost every appropriation bill, including many that would restrict access to abortion. Steep spending cuts would also slash or eliminate funding to programs dealing with family planning and teen pregnancy, and even the HIV epidemic.
Most recently, Republicans punted on plans to pass an appropriations bill to fund the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration amid disagreements over funding cuts and a provision that would ban mail delivery of the abortion drug mifepristone.
In his pitch to House Republicans ahead of taking the gavel on Wednesday, Johnson suggested the creation of a working group to address member concerns with the bill, ahead of bringing it for a floor vote the week of Nov. 13.
Even if the House manages to pass a partisan appropriations bill, it would set up a showdown with the Democratic-majority Senate that’s moving ahead with bipartisan funding bills that exclude any “poison pill” riders.
Patrick Brown, a fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, acknowledged dealing with appropriations is going to be a major test for Johnson. But he said conservatives should feel confident the new Speaker won’t sweep their concerns aside in the interest of a deal with the Senate and the White House.
“It’s only one chamber of a divided government. So the idea that he’s going to come in with ‘we’re all in on abortion all the time,’ obviously, that’s not true. I don’t think anybody wants him to do that,” Brown said. “But, when we’re talking about [appropriation] deals or whatever it is, having somebody who has those priorities first and foremost at top of mind, may make him a little more willing to negotiate on some things that aren’t in that core bucket.”
Johnson has a long history of supporting anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ policies. He has worked to close abortion clinics in Louisiana and twice defended the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
Democrats and abortion rights groups are already seizing on Johnson’s anti-abortion record and appear ready to use it as a cudgel against the GOP conference ahead of the 2024 elections.
Still, he told Hannity that he respects “the rule of law,” and that when the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing same-sex marriage, “that became the law of the land.”
Prior to the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, Johnson said abortion should be left to the states.
But he’s earned an “A+” rating from the powerful anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony (SBA) Pro-Life America and has co-sponsored and advocated for legislation that would put federal limits on abortion.
In a statement, SBA Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser indicated the group wants Johnson to deliver anti-abortion wins for them.
“We are thrilled by the election of Speaker Johnson and look forward to working closely with him to advance national protections for unborn babies,” she said.
In an email to The Hill, Dannenfelser specifically praised Johnson for his work leading a House resolution condemning attacks on anti-abortion facilities and groups.
“There is still much work to be done. That is why we need a unified pro-life House majority under Speaker Johnson’s leadership to stand firm against today’s pro-abortion on demand Democrat party agenda,” she said.
Democrats across the country are embracing a fight over abortion. A key part of the Speaker’s job is to protect and grow the number of seats held by the majority, so forcing Biden-district Republicans to vote on anti-abortion measures may be problematic.
For example, a bill to permanently codify and expand the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits certain federal funds from being used on abortion procedures, was included in a list of 12 pieces of legislation House Republicans planned to pass in the first weeks of their new majority.
But the bill never made it to the floor.
Severino, who ran the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights during the Trump administration, said that bill is “low hanging fruit” for Johnson to support.
He said Johnson’s traditional Republican bonafides will likely give him more leeway, especially given that his election was unanimous among the conference.
“There is a bit of a honeymoon period that he should take full advantage of,” Severino said. “He’s got this opportunity, this window of goodwill that I hope he takes advantage of to get good pro-life policies in place.”