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Why Mike Johnson Finally Ditched MTG and the Far Right

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House House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) speaks to reporters following votes on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 17, 2024. (Anna Rose Layden/The New York Times)

Photo: Anna Rose Layden/The New York Times

Mike Johnson, the accidental Speaker of the House, has spent his seven months in power trying to be everything to everyone. Hard-right conservatives found him too squishy, like when he worked with Democrats to keep the government open, and establishment Republicans found him too conciliatory to the hard right for his attempts to appease MAGA diehards.

When it came to Ukraine, though, he managed to alienate both sides of his conference. Beginning last fall, the Biden administration issued increasingly dire warnings that Russia would roll over Ukraine if Congress didn’t fund more weapons for Kiev. For Reagan Republicans, it was a no-brainer, but for MAGA diehards, it was anathema to their America first beliefs. Facing a potential ouster like his predecessor Kevin McCarthy, Johnson dithered.

Even after the Senate passed comprehensive legislation meant to sweeten Ukraine funding with money for Israel and Taiwan, he dithered for another two months. Eventually the pressure grew. Establishment Republicans were ready to sign a discharge petition, a rarely used procedural tool that would go around Johnson and force a vote on the package. Then Marjorie Taylor Greene offered a “motion to vacate” that would put Johnson’s job up to a vote, which she could activate if he moved to help Ukraine.

Finally this week, facing what his Democratic counterpart Hakeem Jeffries called “a Churchill or Chamberlain moment” as Ukrainian forces run out of ammunition, Johnson chose to spurn the MAGA right and decide that the House should move forward on a similar bill that the Senate passed months ago. Now, with his conference divided, Johnson — an ardent social conservative who helped bolster Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election — is relying on Democrats to supply the votes he needs.

“I thought it was a profile in courage to do the right thing and be on the right side of history because history will judge this vote,” said Mike McCaul of Texas, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and backs aid to Ukraine. “He’s incredibly courageous,” said another backer, John Duarte of California, as he pointed the finger at a handful of his colleagues who were more focused on “celebrity ahead of policy.” Duarte didn’t name names, but CNN broadcasted Marjorie Taylor Greene silently walking away from reporters on live television Friday.

Ukraine funding enjoys strong bipartisan support in the polls and in Congress, but not among the unruly faction of hard-right Republicans who have made the House almost ungovernable in the past two years. As a result, Johnson has spent his entire tenure in office being forced to cooperate with Democrats on all major legislation. “Right now we essentially have a unity government with the Democrats,” Matt Gaetz said earlier this week.

Thomas Massie of Kentucky who has signed on to Greene’s effort to oust Johnson, shared similar sentiments. “It’s not a stable situation where a Republican speaker is speaker only by virtue of Democrats voting for him.” Massie referenced a past Republican speaker, noting the Hastert rule. “If you remember, say that if the majority of the majority doesn’t support it, you don’t bring it to the floor. I think the Johnson rule is if 80 percent of Democrats don’t support it, you don’t bring ‘em to the floor.”

That bipartisan coalition was emphasized on Friday when, on a procedural vote that traditionally falls on party lines, 165 Democrats joined with 151 Republicans to advance a measure to provide aid to Ukraine as well to Israel and Taiwan. If relying on Republicans alone, the procedural motion would have failed miserably, but instead it set up the likely passage of Ukraine aid as part of a series of votes on Saturday as well as making Greene’s effort to defenestrate Johnson far more likely to happen as well.

This only increased the mounting discontent among the hard right of Johnson’s conference. When asked if Johnson was being courageous, Representative Eli Crane said, “If you mean courageous by putting his career on the line, then absolutely he’s being courageous.” The first term Arizona Republican added, “I don’t think he’s being courageous. I think the exact opposite. I think he’s fallen right in line with what the swamp uniparty expects from its leadership, that you will fall in line and you will put Americans last.” Crane was one of the eight House Republicans who pushed Kevin McCarthy out in October. Of the current speaker, he said, “Honestly, it’s tough to defend him right now and that’s hard to say, but it’s just a reality.” Bob Good of Virginia, who joined Crane in that effort last year, went even further, saying that Johnson “had failed us.”

Yet there was still some skepticism even among Johnson’s most ardent critics on the right about ousting him. It wasn’t that they didn’t feel frustrated and sold out by him, they just weren’t sure that there were any better options left. With six months left until Election Day, not only was there a sense from many that there was little to be accomplished by removing Johnson, but that there was only downside risk in that it would allow him to be replaced by either a more establishment Republican or, even worse, Jeffries. Instead, they regarded Johnson as a lame duck who could be dealt with after November. Even Massie, who supported the effort to push out Johnson, simply saw it as a tool to pressure him to resign.

But it’s unclear whether all his skeptics within the House GOP conference are being as strategic. Green accused Johnson of treason over Ukraine, telling reporters he is “literally betraying the American people in order to keep his grip of power on the speakership.”

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