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Updated May 29, 2024, 5:13pm EDT
politics

Speaker Mike Johnson promises a Republican mega-bill that would define Donald Trump’s second term

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The News

Speaker Mike Johnson is preparing Republicans for quick, large-scale action if they win unified control of government in November, telling Semafor he’ll pursue a far-reaching bill aimed at addressing a wide range of issues at once.

Johnson said he’s been in frequent communication with Donald Trump, discussing the potential for a legacy-defining legislative package early in his presidency.

“I told him that I believe he can be the most consequential president of the modern era, if we are focused on a policy and agenda-driven administration and Congress — and that’s our intention,” he said in an interview over the phone on Wednesday.

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Many presidents wish they had a second chance at a first-term agenda with the benefit of experience, but Trump might actually get one. Johnson said he would apply lessons learned since then on Trump’s behalf to legislation that could pass through reconciliation, the budget process that allows the Senate to bypass a filibuster and enact certain types of legislation through a party-line vote.

“We don’t want to make the mistake that we made in the past,” Johnson said. “Back in the 2017 timeframe and in previous years, we Republicans kind of took a single-subject approach to reconciliation. We did one round of health care reform, one round of tax reform. But we’re looking at for [fiscal year 2025], we want to have a much larger scope, multiple issues to address in addition to the expiration of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.”

Johnson has been talking with GOP members about taking a “whole of government” approach to their first big bill since their retreat in March, with up to nine committee chairs involved in preparing “transformational” wish lists early on and coordinating their efforts across the conference. He promised that “there’ll be a lot of development of those policies in the coming weeks.”

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What exactly goes into that package is still an open question, however. As he mentioned, the core of any bill would be addressing the individual tax cuts passed under Trump that are scheduled to sunset in 2025, and are estimated to cost trillions to fully renew. Johnson and other members of leadership have also discussed new border security measures, as well as policies to promote energy production.

But one big question is how far to go in rolling back Democratic policies. Johnson did not commit to fully repealing the Inflation Reduction Act, the climate and tax bill that passed through reconciliation under President Biden, saying “the details are being determined” on their approach.

As for the Affordable Care Act, a sensitive issue Trump has talked about revisiting after failing to repeal and replace the law in 2017, Johnson said “I don’t think there’s any coordinated effort on that yet,” but added there’s “a lot of innovation and change that is desperately needed” in the healthcare system.

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Both parties have found themselves stymied in the past by the strict rules around reconciliation, which requires that legislation be focused primarily on tax and spending matters. The Senate parliamentarian previously ruled that Democrats could not use it to enact immigration reform, for instance.

Johnson said he was “optimistic” that the GOP’s plans would survive, including elements of their border bill H.R. 2, and that they were carefully calibrating their proposals on the “front end” of the process to make sure they wouldn’t be struck down. He added that they wouldn’t “present novel and untested theories to the parliamentarian in the final hours.” 

Another issue that’s tripped up both parties in the past: Keeping expectations in check for a process that was only created to allow limited types of legislation to pass. That could prove especially tricky for Johnson, who has regularly battled with the hard right flank of his conference that’s accused him of too easily compromising on conservative demands.

But Johnson also believes he’s learned lessons of his own from his seven months as speaker, including the value of socializing ideas early among his conference. He said he planned to involve “as many rank and file members as possible” in crafting policy, even as committee chairs and leadership set the tone.

“A lot of this has to do with communication and coordination and we’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way on both of those things,” Johnson said. “When you have a historically small majority as we do right now, those are really necessary components to building consensus. And we’ve already begun that process.”

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Kadia’s view

It makes sense for Johnson to get involved with the herculean and complicated task of reconciliation early, especially after Trump’s upset 2016 victory caught the party off guard.

But the biggest obstacle to Republican policy progress then and now hasn’t been technical legislative issues, it’s been disunity within the conference — something Johnson, who survived a coup attempt by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene with help from Democrats this month, knows all too well.

Our interview took place just one day after a primary that put that divide on full display. Texas Rep. Tony Gonzales, a relative centrist backed by Johnson, narrowly survived a primary from a conservative challenger backed by House Freedom Caucus chair Bob Good. And Good himself is facing a primary challenger now backed by Trump after supporting Ron DeSantis in the presidential contest.

Johnson said he has preached to members to “honor Reagan’s 11th commandment,” the increasingly forgotten rule that Republicans should not speak ill of each other. His support for Gonzales sent a signal he would support “all of our incumbents” across the ideological divide.

Moving forward, he’s hopeful Republicans have gotten the uglier fights — and there have been some extremely nasty ones — out of their system ahead of a potentially massive policy opportunity.

“I certainly hope that we can turn a page after this election cycle,” he said. “Let bygones be bygones. And I would encourage, you know, all of my colleagues to practice what I do and that is that I don’t carry grudges.

Johnson’s personal ambitions are also, of course, intertwined with those of his conference.

Overseeing the early preparation for a high-stakes legislative process could help guarantee his job security. Announcing sweeping policy changes that would likely exclude any Democrats could help satisfy critics who bristled at bipartisan co-governing this Congress. And coordinating with Trump could stymie the lingering threat of a motion to vacate after the president issued a notably qualified endorsement of Johnson to knock down the last attempt.

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Notable

  • House Majority Leader Steve Scalise also talked to Semafor this week about his early preparations for reconciliation. One policy priority he mentioned: Energy, where Republicans hope to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to drilling.
  • For more on the coming multi-trillion dollar fight over the expiring Trump tax cuts, read Semafor’s Joseph Zeballos-Roig’s take on the “the Super Bowl of tax and economic policy,” part of an ongoing series on the stakes of the 2024 race.
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