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The House is practically functioning as a parliament, with Mike Johnson as its 'prime minister'

While the U.S. doesn't have a parliamentary system, America has been functioning with a coalition government, with Mike Johnson acting as the "prime minister."

You’ve heard of former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Well, how about U.S. Prime Minister Mike Johnson?

These are the political circumstances now facing House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La. After all, he runs a "coalition government" in Congress.

We hear about so-called "coalition governments" in parliaments overseas all the time.

A coalition government exists when no party wins an outright majority of seats. Thus, various factions team up to form a "coalition" and anoint a prime minister.

Coalition governments are common in Japan. In the United Kingdom, former Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservatives formed a coalition with Liberal Democrats. That ended a long run by Labour in the UK. It was the first coalition government in Great Britain since the 1970s.

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The U.S. doesn’t have a parliamentary system, but the House of Representatives is practically functioning as a parliament. It’s a coalition government of lots of Democrats and various swaths of Republicans – depending on the issue. 

So, Johnson could be perceived as the prime minister of this coalition government. He had the votes for Republicans to elect him as the successor to former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., last October. In pure parliamentary style, the House even held a "vote of no confidence" on McCarthy’s leadership. Johnson faces a similar threat from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., over the coalition he built with Republicans and Democrats to avoid government shutdowns and pass the foreign aid package. 

McCarthy’s "government" fell when he leaned on Democrats to approve bills to raise the debt ceiling and pass an emergency spending measure last October. But unlike McCarthy, Johnson’s tenure remains intact. Although his grip on power is tenuous.

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The phenomenon of a "coalition government" for Johnson started emerging last fall, shortly after Johnson clasped the gavel. Johnson met at the Capitol with Cameron, now serving as the British Foreign Secretary. But unlike Johnson, Cameron had already experienced the travails of a coalition government. An impasse of a "hung parliament" in 2010 meant Cameron had to form a coalition between the Tories and Liberal Democrats, leaving Labour at the curb. 

"There are some very tricky issues to deal with," Cameron whispered to the new Speaker as they huddled at the Capitol last December. 

"Yes there are," Johnson said to Cameron. "We're navigating them as best we can at the moment. I have a three-vote majority and we just got some announcements today that it's even smaller than that."

"Oh, I didn’t know that," Cameron said. 

But he understood what the rookie Speaker was in for.

"Well, my first government, I didn’t have the majority, so I had to have a coalition," said Cameron.

"I know you can relate," said Johnson at the time.

Well, now Johnson’s "governing coalition" has shrunk even further. 

The Speaker had a three-seat cushion in December when he spoke with Cameron. But Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., is resigning. That will shrink the meager Republican majority to a two-seat margin.

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Here is the new breakdown in the House, post Gallagher: 429 members total, with 217 Republicans and 212 Democrats. That leaves six vacancies. If New York state Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Democrat, prevails over Republican Gary Dickson in a special election in western New York next week, the margin shrivels to a solitary seat. The breakdown would be as follows: 430 members with 217 Republicans and 213 Democrats. The GOP would only be able to lose one vote on any roll call and still prevail without help from the other side.

That’s where coalition governing comes in. Some of this even drifts back to the McCarthy era.

There was a combination of Democrats and Republicans who voted last June to lift the debt ceiling. Seventy-one Republicans voted "nay," so Democrats picked up the slack. This was all under McCarthy’s watch. 

In November, Johnson was the Speaker. He blessed a bill to temporarily fund the government. Ninety-three Republicans voted "nay." But again, Democrats rescued the GOP. Only two Democrats cast "nay" ballots. 

Johnson tried a novel, two-step approach to avoid a government shutdown in the late winter. He lost 83 Republicans on a bill to fund a sliver of the government. Then Johnson lost 112 Republicans on a bill which funded about 70% of the government. 

There was soon a vote to renew FISA Section 702, a controversial foreign surveillance program. Libertarian-minded conservatives and progressives were concerned about this plan. There was a robust debate about whether warrants were essential to eavesdrop on the communications of Americans. The House passed the bill. But a bipartisan coalition of 88 Republicans and 59 Democrats voted "nay."

The most controversial bill of all was the plan for Ukraine. The "Three Mikes" handle the bulk of foreign policy issues for Republicans: House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Tex., House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala. Each pushed to assist Ukraine and the House passed the bill. But 112 Republicans voted "nay." That’s well over half of the GOP conference. Democrats put up significant numbers on all of the foreign aid bills. But the minority party made the difference when it came to Ukraine. 

That attests to the "coalition" which exists in the House right now.

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There was no better testament to the coalition concept in the House than last week. That’s when the House needed to approve a "rule" to put the foreign aid packages on the floor. In the House, the body usually needs to approve a set of ground rules before bringing a piece of legislation to the floor. The "rule" dictates how much time the House allocates for debate and what amendments - if any - are in order. If the House doesn’t greenlight the rule, the underlying legislation is stuck.

It's customary that majority party members vote yes on the rule (since it’s written by their party) and minority members vote no. 

Republicans have struggled to even dislodge "rules" for legislation from the Rules Committee. But Democrats helped out on that last week – a rare move – even though Republicans dominate the membership on that committee.

In fact, Republicans have blown up a staggering seven "rules" on the House floor since last summer. In other words, Republicans are voting against bringing their own bills to the floor. The House had only witnessed two rules lose on the floor since the late 1990s.  

So last Friday, the "rule" for the foreign aid plan hit the House floor. Johnson’s coalition government swung into action again. The House approved the rule by a wide margin: 316-94. But in this case, an astonishing 165 Democrats voted yes – compared to just 151 Republicans. 

A smaller group of Democrats helped the House approve a rule last year to lift the debt ceiling. But no one had seen so many members of the minority party bail out the majority party on a rule like that since 1964. That’s when Republicans – then in the minority – helped the House adopt a rule on civil rights legislation. 

It remains unclear how long this can go on for Johnson.

Greene could still try to unseat him. It’s doubtful the Georgia Republican has the votes to do so. Republicans struggled to elect a Speaker last fall. Depending on the level of turmoil, whoever would win likely needs to form a coalition – and become a de facto "prime minister." Otherwise, the House could be looking at the possibility of another leader – perhaps "Prime Minister" Hakeem Jeffries, D., N.Y.

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