Senate Republicans are relieved the House has a Speaker again — they just don’t know much about him.
Asked if he knew newly installed Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.) responded, “No.”
The No. 3 Senate Republican conceded that what he knows about Johnson is “just what I’ve read in the papers and in the reports online in the last day.”
“I don’t know him at all,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said. “I heard his name, really, for the first time this week.”
The answers reflect both Johnson’s stunning rise and the chaos that has engulfed the House over the past three weeks.
Johnson is only in the midst of his fourth term, having served on the House Judiciary and Armed Services committees and becoming the chair of the Republican Study Committee in 2019. He was in his second term as House GOP conference vice chair.
But this week, he pulled off what some had feared was impossible, uniting the House Republican conference behind him and winning the gavel Wednesday afternoon. Three nominees before him had failed at the task.
Herculean tasks still await him, including working with the Senate to fund the government and on a supplemental package.
But he has another item on his to-do list: Getting to know his colleagues across the aisle.
Most GOP senators, including Senate Republican leadership and longtime lawmakers, indicated that they don’t know Johnson personally and still don’t even know much about him.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) acknowledged to The Hill that he has never met Johnson. Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said that he doesn’t “know him very well” but “may have met him” in the past.
Some lawmakers added they didn’t know about him until recently, when he became a potential option for Speaker. Only hours before he became the fourth Speaker-designate in a matter of weeks, Johnson lost his bid for that title to House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.).
But senators, who by and large had grown increasingly concerned and desperate over the past three weeks as the House sat in a stalemate, are mostly relieved to have someone running the chamber. And they are willing to give Johnson a chance.
“He seems to be a good pick. I’m all for him. Anybody that can get through,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters with a laugh, adding that he too does not know him well. “No, not much. Seems like a very capable fellow.”
And despite that lack of familiarity by top Senate Republicans, those who have worked alongside him for years speak highly of him as a policy wonk and praise his work ethic. They believe he has what it takes to be an effective leader at a tumultuous time.
“He clearly bridges the divides they have. … He’s a good guy who keeps his word, which is to say trustworthy. Shows up [and] works hard. What more can you ask?” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) told reporters. “He’s a straight shooter. … He does his homework, and he’s going to work his conference to get them in the right place.”
Johnson comes into the Speakership at a difficult time, as Congress looks to avoid a government shutdown in just over three weeks and is working on the White House’s $106 billion supplemental that would boost Israel and Ukraine in their ongoing efforts against Hamas and Russia, respectively, as well increase security at the U.S. southern border.
Where Johnson comes down on the supplemental is up in the air. He’s a vocal supporter of backing Israel after Hamas’s attack earlier this month but has recently expressed qualms about further spending for Kyiv’s efforts.
The Louisiana lawmaker also laid out his plan to fund the government in the coming weeks as part of his Speaker push, a self-described “ambitious” schedule that includes a stopgap spending bill through either mid-January or mid-April and passing all eight appropriations bills individually before the Nov. 17 funding deadline.
There are some questions about the most notable portion of Johnson’s congressional tenure, though. He was among the architects of the push to overturn the 2020 electoral count in favor of then-President Trump. House Republicans booed a reporter Tuesday night who asked Johnson about his role leading up to Jan. 6, 2021.
However, Cassidy — one of seven Senate Republicans to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial — said that item on Johnson’s resume does not give him pause.
“If all we do is focus upon flaws, we never move forward, because everybody in this institution … has some incredible flaw that you would look upon and say, ‘Does this disqualify them for X, Y and Z,’” Cassidy said.
“At some point, you’ve got to move ahead, and he’s a guy that can bridge those differences,” he added.
Alexander Bolton contributed.