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Can Democrats work with new House speaker, who voted against certifying the election?


The House of Representatives finally has a new leader.


MIKE JOHNSON: Would y'all like to get right into governing?


MARTIN: Mike Johnson accepted the speaker's gavel that was taken away from Kevin McCarthy three weeks ago. He is not well-known outside Capitol Hill, but the Louisiana Republican was endorsed by former President Donald Trump. Johnson was one of the Republican lawmakers who voted against certifying the electoral count in the 2020 election, and he defended Trump in the 2020 impeachment proceeding. John Lawrence is a former chief of staff to the former Democratic House speaker, Nancy Pelosi. He's also an historian who teaches about the workings of Congress. So we thought it would be interesting to get his take on the new speaker, what he might face and how the two parties might work together going forward. He's with us now. Good morning, Mr. Lawrence.

JOHN LAWRENCE: Good morning. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: So thanks for joining us. So what is your sense of how the new speaker will lead the conference? I know on the one hand, as we said, he's not well-known. He's new. On the one hand, he says he's committed to fighting the policies of the Biden administration. He's made clear his support for former president - for the former president, Trump. On the other hand, you know, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell has said similar things, but he's been a productive player in Congress at some point. So what's your sense of Mr. Johnson?

LAWRENCE: He's going to face a lot of challenges. He is by far the most junior person to elevate - be elevated to the speakership in over about 140 years, and the speakership is not something you can easily walk into. It's not just a question of having gone through all of this electoral chaos with the Republican caucus and now emerging, he will have to bind that caucus together, which is very difficult. He's going to have the same problems that confronted not only speaker McCarthy, but also Speaker Boehner, Speaker Ryan, that had rebellious factions in their caucus. He's also going to have no experience personally dealing with the leadership of the Senate or dealing with the White House. And that's a key role that the speaker has to play, not only for his own party, but in terms of the institutional interests of the House.

Secondly, he made a point in his dais speech that his goal was to decentralize power within the House. I think that's going to be a very tough thing for him to do and still manage the Republican conference and the House in general. We've seen a general effort under speakers of both parties to try to centralize power because of the close margins and the ideological divisions within the House. Decentralizing power down to chairmen or down to individual members and factions in the House is just going to make it that much more difficult for Speaker Johnson to run the place efficiently.

MARTIN: Well, can you talk a little bit about that? I mean, that seems to be a demand, a desire for people in both parties, to decentralize power. And I just wonder, why is it so difficult to meet that?

LAWRENCE: Because when you have parties that are ideologically as aligned as the Democratic and Republican parties are in the modern era and very narrow margins - only four seats, five seats separating the two parties - you have to have discipline within your caucus, within your conference, because you're going to get very, very few votes from the other side. And what we've seen is that when you can't get that kind of unity within your caucus or your conference, as was the case with Speaker Boehner in 2012, 2013 and with Speaker McCarthy earlier this year, and you have to go over and rely on votes from the other side, from Democrats, to help pass the House's legislation, to keep the institution functioning, that accentuates the factional problems that you have within your own conference because people resent you seeking Democratic votes.

So it just - it becomes very difficult. A lot of success in leadership is not power relationships. It's not that the speaker orders people to do things. It's that they have a personal relationship with members. And they can do trade-offs, and they can make concessions. That's where we don't know very much about Mr. Johnson. He's had a very junior level leadership position, basically had to do with assigning one-minute speeches at the beginning of the legislative day.

MARTIN: OK, so...

LAWRENCE: He really just doesn't have any of that experience.

MARTIN: So there's an immediate issue, as I think most people know, the government shutdown. The government, without a new funding bill - there's a November 17 deadline - the government will shut down again. Now, he says he's got a plan to avert this. And - but again, certain funding bills are a high priority for the administration and also for Democrats. Speaker Johnson voted twice against appropriations bills that included funding for Ukraine. What do you foresee here?

LAWRENCE: Well, this is the problem, that nothing is going to have really changed, just as little changed when Speaker Ryan succeeded Speaker Boehner. He might get a pass for a short-term continuing resolution because he's there for such a short time, and his party will allow him to continue current funding for a short period.

But ultimately, he's got to deal with the remaining 12 appropriation bills and negotiations with the Democratic House and the Democratic president. He's going to have huge demands from his members for cuts of 15, 20% over the cuts they've already agreed to, and that's just not going to fly with Democrats. So he's going to face the same obligation to find compromise. And that will generate the same kind of intraparty tensions that Mr. McCarthy faced and ultimately brought him down.

MARTIN: So a lot to keep track of in the next couple of weeks. John Lawrence is a former chief of staff to the former Democratic House speaker, Nancy Pelosi. And as we said, he's also an historian who has studied and taught about the workings of Congress. Mr. Lawrence, thanks so much for joining us and sharing this expertise with us.

LAWRENCE: Thank you very much. Bye, bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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