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Johnson looks to unify GOP with crack down on college campus protests

By Annie Grayer and Melanie Zanona, CNN

(CNN) — Speaker Mike Johnson is zeroing in on the wave of pro-Palestinian protests that have rocked college campuses across the country as he looks to unify his fractured House Republican conference that has been bitterly splintered for months – all while exposing divisions within the House Democratic caucus.

Johnson, who is poised to face a referendum on his rookie speakership as soon as next week, has used the weight of the speaker’s office to launch a multi-faceted investigation into the tense clashes at American universities. That includes tapping committee chairs to beef up oversight of federal funding for schools; hatching plans to haul in college presidents for hearings; exploring additional legislation to address antisemitism; and dispatching key Republicans to visit campus encampments and demonstrations.

With multiple committees involved in the effort, Johnson is coordinating the work behind the scenes and making the House-wide investigation a new focal point of the GOP agenda, which has largely been stalled over the past few months.

Those plans started to come into sharper focus on Monday when the Louisiana Republican huddled with his leadership team and key committee chairs to discuss how they could expand their current probes, delineate the work across multiple committees and plan a press conference to roll out the new effort, according to multiple senior Republican sources.

“It is morally the right thing to do to call it out,” Johnson, who visited Columbia University last week, said of the new investigation on Wednesday.

The effort could not only shore up much-needed support for Johnson inside his fractured conference – which has struggled to pass even basic procedural votes and messaging bills – but could also appeal to key voter constituencies, including moderates, independents and suburban parents, ahead of the November elections.

And there are already signs that Republicans are looking to capitalize on the issue this fall: The House GOP’s campaign arm cut a new digital ad this week tying Democrats to the chaotic scenes on college campuses and accusing them of not doing enough to protect Jewish students from some of the instances of antisemitism flaring up at protests.

“Anti-Israel protests on college campuses threaten Jewish students,” says the ad, which was shared first with CNN. “And extreme House Democrats refuse to condemn it.”

But the party’s effort to make the fight against antisemitism front and center to the GOP legislative agenda, as well as in their campaign and messaging platforms, comes as Republicans have struggled with rhetoric from some of their own members.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who pushed anti-Muslim and antisemitic comments before she was elected to Congress, recently invoked an antisemitic trope while discussing her opposition to the bipartisan antisemitism bill, while former President Donald Trump hosted White nationalist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes at his Mar-a-Lago estate in 2022.

And Republicans, as well as Democrats, were not completely unified on Wednesday when 133 Democrats joined 187 Republicans in voting for the Antisemitism Awareness Act. The bill would mandate that when the Department of Education enforces federal anti-discrimination laws it uses a definition of antisemitism put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

While supporters of the legislation say it will help combat antisemitism on college campuses, opponents argue it overreaches and threatens to chill free speech. Twenty-one Republicans and 70 Democrats voted against it.

Some Democrats see the new investigative effort into college campuses and Johnson’s recent visit to Columbia University as a divisive political ploy.

“Mike Johnson went to the Columbia campus and it seemed designed to try to somehow make Democrats seem antisemitic and, you know, make the president come out and speak about this,” House Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal told CNN.

“​​We have constant resolutions that are not trying to get us all on the same page about something we should agree on, which is condemning antisemitism, but usually designed in a way that will divide,” the Washington state Democrat added. “It seems to me that the biggest threat to antisemitism is leaders who try to divide the country on antisemitism instead of uniting us.”

Launching an initiative to “crack down” on antisemitism on college campuses also marks a key shift away from another top GOP investigative target: the impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden. Without the evidence or consensus to impeach, that Republican-led investigation is stalled, with even House Oversight Chair James Comer ready to end his work.

“I see him much more out front on this issue,” GOP Rep. Lisa McClain of Michigan said of Johnson’s work on the college campus probe compared to his role on the Biden impeachment inquiry.

A senior GOP aide told CNN Johnson’s approach to both probes will be the same: letting the facts dictate where the committees go.

‘A high priority for him’

Within an hour after his tense press conference at Columbia University, Johnson was on the phone with the White House trying to schedule a time to speak with Biden about what he had seen of the growing encampment of students and to urge the president to visit himself, a senior Republican aide told CNN.

“I’ve encouraged him to go and see it for himself,” Johnson relayed to reporters on Tuesday about his eventual conversation with Biden.

As the House returned to Washington this week, Johnson was meeting with his leadership team and key Republican committee chairs to coordinate the multi-faceted investigation and unveil their plans with a press conference.

While the House Education and Workforce Committee had already been conducting oversight of how colleges are addressing antisemitism following Hamas’ attack on Israel in October, Johnson decided to elevate the issue to a conference-wide focus after his recent trip to Columbia.

“Clearly it’s a very high priority for him,” GOP Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the chairman of the House Science Committee, told CNN. “Whatever happened at Columbia made a real impression on him.”

House Education Chairwoman Virginia Foxx of North Carolina announced this week that she has invited top officials from Yale University, the University of California Los Angeles, and the University of Michigan to testify before her panel later this month to discuss “their handling of these most recent outrages” and has made multiple document demands from various universities.

House GOP Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik, who sits on the Education panel, is also expected to play a prominent role in the effort. After her December grilling of a trio of university presidents went viral and led to two of them resigning, the New York Republican posted what was a record fundraising haul at the time for her – with some Jewish Democratic donors contributing to the congresswoman.

The other prongs of the House GOP probe will include Judiciary Republicans investigating student visas; Oversight Committee Republicans looking into the money behind the protest groups; Science Committee Republicans probing whether schools that receive science grants are in compliance; and Ways and Means Republicans scrutinizing the tax status of universities.

“I will go where we are needed. We felt like there was a vacuum of leadership there and that it was an important moment for us as the House, for the speaker of the House who represents the whole body to speak with clarity, conviction and consistency about what this is,” Johnson told reporters on Tuesday about how he sees his role in this unfolding conflict.

House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan of Ohio described Johnson’s motivations behind launching this broad investigation: “I think it helps the country and that’s why he is doing it. I mean, he is showing leadership.”

The day after the probe was launched, Comer announced a hearing on Washington DC’s response to encampments on college campuses and went to visit an encampment at George Washington University where he was met by protesters who chanted over his remarks.

While the Kentucky Republican told CNN the encampment “appears to be peaceful,” he said he has heard “from many Jewish students who do not feel safe” and declared the protesters as trespassing.

“You have a right to protest, I respect that and we all respect the First Amendment. The problem is you don’t have the right to trespass, you don’t have the right to intimidate and that is why we are here today,” Comer added.

As Comer made his way through the crowd, one protester shouted, “We don’t want you here,” while another shot back, “We absolutely want you here.”

CNN’s Haley Talbot contributed to this report.

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