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Mike Johnson faces divisive floor votes in early test of his speakership

<i>Nathan Howard/Reuters</i><br/>Newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson addresses the chamber after he was elected at the US Capitol in Washington
Nathan Howard/Reuters
Newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson addresses the chamber after he was elected at the US Capitol in Washington

By Melanie Zanona and Annie Grayer, CNN

Newly minted House Speaker Mike Johnson hoped to rally his members around key policy issues during a recent Republican conference call. But it didn’t take long for personal feuds to instead take center stage.

GOP Rep. Young Kim, who represents a key California swing district carried by President Joe Biden, expressed concern over a resolution to censure Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib over her comments criticizing Israel and attendance at a pro-Palestinian protest, according to sources on the call.

But Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who is the chief sponsor of the resolution and has her own history of anti-Semitic tropes, quickly shot back – and directly called out Kim.

“You voted to remove me from my committees,” Greene said on the call, according to a member who recalled the conversation. “So you’re willing to hold Republicans accountable but not Democrats?”

A source close to Kim said the congresswoman is concerned over a censure tit-for-tat – especially if they are coming to the floor under an expedited process, without going through due process – and questioned whether it was the best use of their time.

“She believes the conference should get back to work and lead with policies to support the American people and stand with the people of Israel and their right to exist as they defend themselves against barbaric terrorist attacks,” the source said.

For Johnson, balancing the interests of the GOP’s majority makers and MAGA minded members will be one of the many challenges he’ll face as speaker atop a still bitterly divided conference. And his limited leadership experience is already being put to the test this week, as some members force divisive floor votes on a flurry of resolutions aimed at punishing some of the House’s most controversial members.

In addition to the Talib resolution, Democratic Rep. Becca Balint of Vermont has put forward a separate resolution to censure Greene in a form of retaliation, saying she has “fanned the flames of racism, antisemitism, LGBTQ hate speech, Islamophobia, anti-Asian hate, xenophobia, and other forms of hatred.”

And a group of freshman New York Republicans have called up a contentious floor vote to expel embattled fellow GOP Rep. George Santos, who recently pleaded not guilty to new charges in the fraud case against him.

While the trio of resolutions at this point seem unlikely to pass, according to senior congressional sources, they are threatening to split the GOP at a time when Johnson had hoped to keep the spotlight squarely on spending bills and aid to Israel, and move past the personal squabbles and internal tensions that had engulfed the party for weeks.

Johnson has cautioned against expelling Santos, telling Fox News on October 26, “We have to allow due process to play itself out. That’s what our system of justice is for. He’s not convicted. He’s charged. And so if we’re going to expel people from Congress just because they’re charged with a crime or accused, that’s a problem.”

More broadly, Johnson told reporters on Monday, “We will see what happens,” when asked about the various disciplinary resolutions expected to hit the floor on Wednesday.

Punitive measures so far lack the votes

The Santos expulsion effort has the most potential to derail the Republican agenda, since booting the New York Republican would chip away at the GOP’s already narrow majority. But it’s a high bar to succeed — expulsion requires two-thirds of the chamber to pass.

And GOP leadership sources are hopeful that the recent announcement from the House Ethics Committee that they may soon wrap up their probe into Santos will dissuade Republicans from supporting expulsion, buying the investigation more time.

There does not appear appear to be enough votes to pass at this point. So far, only five Republicans have publicly said they would support the Santos expulsion measure, with a sixth telling CNN they would vote yes – far from the 290 needed for it to succeed.

Ohio GOP Rep. Max Miller is one of the handful of Republicans backing the expulsion measure.

“I called for George Santos’ expulsion at the very beginning of the year,” Miller told CNN. “And you know, I’m a man of my word. I’m not backing away. I’m a Republican who likes to hold other Republicans accountable when they do nasty things.”

When Democrats tried to force a vote on expelling Santos back in May, Republicans who wanted to expel Santos ultimately sided with House GOP leadership in voting to refer the matter to the Ethics panel that was already investigating him, but the expectation was that investigation would move rapidly.

New York Republicans, who are eager to distance themselves from Santos amid fears his scandals will be a drag on their reelection bids, have since grown impatient and are now leading the expulsion effort.

In a new letter to their colleagues ahead of the vote on Wednesday, five New York Republicans from swing districts wrote, “as Republican Members from the New York delegation, we fully support Santos’ expulsion, and ask all of our colleagues to join us in voting yes.”

Meanwhile, there is also some wariness in the GOP over the pair of censure resolutions, which used to be exceedingly rare but are being increasingly deployed as a weapon on both sides of the aisle.

Greene accuses Tlaib of “antisemitic activity” and “leading an insurrection” at the US Capitol complex for speaking at a protest where activists called for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war and arrests were later made. Tlaib, who is the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in Congress, has denounced the resolution as “unhinged” and “deeply Islamophobic.”

Most of the Michigan delegation – and several Republicans – are against censuring Tlaib, who is from the state, sources told CNN. House Democratic leadership is actively whipping against the Tlaib resolution. Calling the ceasefire protest last month an insurrection, which evokes the January 6, 2021, Capitol Hill insurrection is a turn off to a lot of people, a House GOP aide told CNN.

GOP Rep. Tim Walberg of Michigan forcefully spoke out against the resolution on the Republican conference call over the weekend and questioned whether it was the best use of their time, a source familiar with the call told CNN.

But it is still unclear whether Republican leadership, led by brand new Speaker Johnson, will take an official position and try to sway his conference one way or the other.

During the conference call, Johnson told his colleagues: “We should fight Democrats on policy,” sources on the call said.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Haley Talbot contributed to this report.

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