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Johnson’s Foreign-Aid Plan Relies on Democrats Saving Him

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Members Of Congress Hold Candlelight Vigil For Israeli Victims And Hostages

The Speaker and his Democratic frenemy.
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It’s been obvious from the moment Mike Johnson took the Speaker’s gavel that he would not be able to count on the small and shrinking Republican majority in the House to get much of anything done. The problem isn’t just the policy differences that divide the far-right and far-far-right factions of the House GOP conference. Fragile majorities invite small groups of politicians to try to shake down the leadership. Some want favors and concessions (much as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have done in the Senate), others have personal axes to grind (e.g., Matt Gaetz, who for various reasons really hated Kevin McCarthy), and there are those who just crave attention (e.g., Johnson’s current Republican tormenter Marjorie Taylor Greene). So Johnson has had to rely on Democratic votes repeatedly to enact stopgap and then annual spending legislation. And now, when he faces a high-stakes challenge in trying to enact foreign aid measures that can survive the House and the Senate, he may have to go to the well again and again for Democratic support to keep the whole thing from falling apart.

The landscape over this fraught set of bills extending aid to Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan, while offering conservatives some rich ideological sweeteners, is constantly changing. But right now Johnson’s plan is to move these bills separately under regular order (i.e., no votes under suspension of the rules that require two-third majorities) and then kick them all over to the Senate in one big package, as Politico Playbook explains:

So begins the trickiest moment of Johnson’s already messy speakership. He’s proposing the House take separate votes on Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan funding, plus other provisions such as turning some aid into loans, seizing Russian assets to help Ukraine, and even forcing a TikTok sale. Whatever passes would then be knitted together and sent over to the Senate as a single package.

For an appetizer, the Speaker is expected to first offer some easy-to-pass resolutions relating to Iran’s recent attack on Israel. But then he needs to put the procedures he wants to follow in the series of foreign-aid votes into a proposed rule that has to clear the Rules Committee and then win a majority on the floor. With a significant number of House Freedom Caucus types likely to object based on this or that various concerns (mostly opposition to any Ukraine aid, and/or real or feigned anger at the adequacy of the ideological sweeteners), there’s no question he’ll need Democrats votes in both those arenas. With Democrats mostly willing to go along at least until Johnson proposes something unacceptable, House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries will almost certainly lend his Republican counterpart just enough votes to make that happen.

But then things really get complicated as the House votes on amendments to the foreign-aid bills and then the bills themselves. On the crucial Ukraine measure and also the ideological-sweeteners sidecar, Johnson cannot give MAGA Republicans everything they want without imperiling final passage of the package by the Democrat-controlled Senate (where Republican support for Ukraine is also relatively high). So he’ll need an indeterminate number of Democrats on multiple votes there as well. At every moment, Jeffries will hold some serious leverage over Johnson since one failed vote could blow up the entire gambit. He will likely use it to (for example) make sure robust humanitarian aid to Gaza is included in the package.

Then, if this all works out and a foreign-aid package is actually sent to Joe Biden, Johnson will inevitably face a motion to vacate the chair for his pains; MTG has already filed one that Thomas Massie is co-sponsoring; it only take one member to bring such a motion to a mandatory vote, and it’s likely other restive right-wingers (and maybe a few random grandstanders) will back it. So to quite literally keep his gavel until November, Johnson will again have to rely on Democratic votes (the absence of which doomed McCarthy when his moment of truth arrived last fall).

The looming presences over all these maneuvers are the two 2024 presidential candidates. The whole foreign-aid package obviously must be acceptable to the sitting president of the United States. But Donald Trump could easily derail the process with a flick of a Truth Social post, which is why Johnson went to the trouble of flying down to Mar-a-Lago late last week to pick up an attaboy from the 45th president even as they announced an absurdly redundant proposal to make illegal voting by noncitizens illegal.

If Mike Johnson manages to pull this off without ripping up the U.S. foreign-aid program or losing his gavel, then we’ll all need to concede he’s not the hapless Mr. Magoo he initially looked like. But he’ll have to get some serious help from across the aisle to get it all done.


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