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Speaker Johnson charges into political battle with McCarthy’s old cavalry

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Speaker Mike Johnson will spend the fall trying to remind his colleagues that his approach is different from Kevin McCarthy’s — yet he’ll be doing it from a leadership table that’s mostly identical to his predecessor’s.

House Republicans on Wednesday elected the lone new member of their leadership team, Rep. Blake Moore (R-Utah), to replace the speaker in the No. 7 position that Johnson vacated last month. Notably, Johnson remained neutral in the race, a choice not to put his own fingerprints on his own leadership lineup.

In fact, the Louisiana Republican has decided to keep the GOP’s entire senior structure in place, from his top deputies on down to the House’s most powerful panels. Johnson’s one exception: Erasing the unelected position held by McCarthy ally and home-state colleague Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.). In other private conversations since he won the gavel, Johnson has assured leaders and chairs that he won’t be cleaning house.

Several of the speaker’s fellow Republicans said they’re unbothered by the GOP leadership remaining in place, arguing that colleagues had separately elected the occupants of every other position. The newly chosen speaker’s choice to wield no influence over the formation of his own team is a strange and rare outcome, though not necessarily one that dooms him to the same ouster McCarthy suffered.

“It’s the most unusual circumstance,” said House Rules Committee Chair Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who described a recent conversation with Johnson about whether he’d be switching up committee chairs, including his own gavel. Johnson said he would not.

“It certainly would be in his right” to pick a new Rules chief, Cole said of Johnson. “He has every right to revoke it, but he said, ‘no.’” (Cole further joked that it helped he had nominated Johnson for vice chair several years ago, which he quipped was “very visionary.”)

GOP leaders before Johnson have shaped internal elections in plenty of ways, such as elevating their own allies and making other selections for strategic reasons — boosting leverage, currying favor and even occasionally exacting revenge. Privately, some other Republicans suggested that Johnson could still decide to shake up GOP leadership later, as he gets more comfortable in the role — and likely after they find a way to avoid a government shutdown.

But for the next season and its series of political landmines, at least, Johnson will now lean heavily on the same team, from Cole to the long roster of party whips, that McCarthy did. Several seasoned Republicans argued that Johnson’s decision would help him as he prepares to deal with a slew of difficult votes, not to mention White House and Senate spending negotiations.

“He’s inheriting great gifts that have gotten us through tough votes this year, very tough votes, in major fights with the White House and with the Senate,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), the Financial Services Committee chair and former McCarthy-appointed acting speaker. “So he’s been gifted a very nice structure here. And large components of the job that are already defined for.”

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), an occasional McCarthy critic, agreed: “Continuity is key right now,” he said. “I trust the speaker and his judgment. I think he made the right call.”

Others noted that members of leadership, even if they were elected under McCarthy, respect Johnson and have already proven they can work together.

“As far as the leadership structure, anybody there probably could have blocked Mike Johnson. None of them did,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), chair of the business-focused Main Street Caucus.

Perhaps the most under-the-radar way for speakers to exert their influence over the conference is the GOP steering committee, a lineup of leadership-aligned members who largely decide committee chairmanships and membership of highly desired panels. That committee, too, remains mostly unchanged after McCarthy’s loss of the speakership.

While Johnson himself will now receive four votes, the rest of the GOP steering roster remains the same apart from Graves’ departure.

Johnson’s decision not to be picking horses in the vice chair race — which would also risk alienating other competitors in the process — tracks with how the speaker has operated in the past. He’s mostly avoided picking sides during contested leadership races, while keeping healthy but distant relationships with most colleagues.

In the end, Moore, a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, bested the field of roughly a half-dozen GOP candidates for the vice chair role. Moore defeated Rep. Beth Van Duyne (R-Texas), who was viewed as more of a conservative favorite.

The vice chairmanship, which helps oversee member services, is seen more generally as a foothold to getting into leadership before rising up. Lately, of course, Johnson has popularized it in ways that no one on Capitol Hill could have predicted.