This week in Washington: A new speaker and a new pro-life strategy

WASHINGTON (OSV News) -- Republican Conference Vice Chair Mike Johnson, R-La., was elected U.S. House speaker Oct. 25, three weeks after the ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy. He will likely face many of the same challenges as his predecessor. A key member of the pro-life movement also spoke about their electoral strategy ahead of a ballot measure in Ohio.

Proverbial white smoke went up at the U.S. Capitol after a contentious, three-week process to replace McCarthy as leader of the House Republicans' slim and fractured majority.

In his first interview following his election as speaker, Johnson told Fox News’ Sean Hannity his new title is "surreal," but said that the very structure of the U.S. Congress is built upon the notion of civil disagreement.

"We're going to come to the table with very different philosophical ideas and core principles, and we have to arm-wrestle over that and reach consensus," Johnson said.

Several pressing issues await new Speaker Johnson, including a looming deadline to avert a government shutdown in November, and debates over aid packages for Israel and Ukraine as they fend off conflict. Advocacy groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have cautioned against a government shutdown, expressing concern about the potential impact on the poor and vulnerable, even religious ministry to U.S. military personnel.

Funding for Ukraine, in particular, has divided the Republican Party as a whole, with some members eager to thwart Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of that country, while other nationalist elements oppose such foreign aid. Some allies of former President Donald Trump resent Ukraine for becoming a figure in his first impeachment trial.

Cycling through three other nominees after McCarthy's ouster -- Reps. Steve Scalise, R-La., Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Tom Emmer, R-Minn. -- the conference ultimately backed Johnson unanimously, but that doesn't mean internal divisions have mended, Matthew Green, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America in Washington who studies Congress, told OSV News, adding that Johnson will face similar problems to McCarthy, who could afford to lose just a scant number of Republican votes if he sought to pass legislation with no Democratic support, and frequently found himself at odds with differing factions within his own party.

"If the idea is you're supposed to be a team, they weren't a team at all, it was just, you know, it was just every person for themselves," Green said of the aftermath of McCarthy's ouster. "And I don't think those divisions have gone away. I don't think that tendency has gone away. It's just that you know, Republicans were so tired. And Johnson kind of checked all the boxes of enough factions in the party that they're willing to, you know, move forward with him as the nominee."

Former Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., a Catholic who ended up at odds with members of his party over his opposition to abortion, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that what Johnson "has going for him is this sudden change in the zeitgeist of the Republican conference."

"How long will it last? Nobody knows. I don’t expect long, but maybe long enough to get through a few traps -- another (continuing resolution), Ukraine funding, House (appropriations) bills," he added.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, has a new political strategy for abortion at the ballot box -- leaning into the organization's call for 15-week gestational limits, Politico reported.

Voters in states including California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, Vermont and Kansas either rejected adding new limitations on the procedure or approved adding legal protections for it in the months following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned prior rulings by the high court making abortion access a constitutional right. Voters in Ohio will consider in November a measure that would codify abortion access in the state’s constitution through fetal viability, typically understood to be 24 weeks gestation.

Dannenfelser and SBA have called for GOP presidential candidates to call for a 15-week federal limit on abortions with exceptions when a woman's life is in danger. She told Politico the group would extend that call down-ballot.

“It’s obviously not our ultimate -- what we want," she said. "I mean, we all know that. … It's incremental -- like every other human rights battle that we've won in this country has been. It's like the Missouri Compromise.”

"Fifteen weeks is the right line," she argued -- for now.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the vast majority of abortions in the United States take place prior to 12 weeks gestation. In 2020, the CDC found that 80.9% were performed prior to nine weeks gestation, with 93.1% of all procedures prior to 13 weeks gestation.

- - - Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @kgscanlon.