Mike Johnson is gambling everything — but a far-right rebellion is growing

The speaker’s complicated plan to split aid for Ukraine and Israel into four separate bills might not be enough to quell what’s happening in Congress, John Bowden reports

Thursday 18 April 2024 16:03 BST
Speaker Mike Johnson faces the political battle of his life this weekend as he seeks to pass Ukraine aid over the complaints of conservatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene
Speaker Mike Johnson faces the political battle of his life this weekend as he seeks to pass Ukraine aid over the complaints of conservatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene (The Independent)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


House speaker Mike Johnson is attempting a high-wire act this week - one that could blow up in his face, cost him the job he has clung to for six months, and throw the lower chamber into chaos.

The ultra-conservative Republican is supporting a vote on Ukraine aid despite many of his party’s conservative wing being strongly against it. A conservative rebellion is growing, with a challenge to his leadership from firebrand congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene who was joined on Tuesday by a second lawmaker.

Now, he’s come up with a complicated plan to pass foreign aid by breaking up the supplemental national security funding package already passed by the Senate.

Johnson will attempt to pass five bills - three dealing with military and security assistance for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan individually. A fourth bill would deal with the divestiture or sale of Chinese-owned social media app TikTok, and freeze Russian assets in the US. A fifth bill focuses on border security and includes some of the core components of a hardline immigration bill passed by the House in 2023.

For much of his speakership, Johnson has been between a rock and a hard place. He remains barely in control of one of the slimmest majorities and most ungovernable caucuses in memory, constantly battling protests and revolts from his party’s right flank, often in the face of a unified Democratic minority. His greatest asset in the immediate future may be the weariness and fatigue that has settled over the House after months of rightwing antics.

Donald Trump and Mike Johnson appear together at Mar-a-Lago on 12 April
Donald Trump and Mike Johnson appear together at Mar-a-Lago on 12 April (AP)

At a closed-door GOP conference meeting on Tuesday, Mr Johnson was confronted by Rep. Thomas Massie, from Kentucky. Mr Massie told the room that the speaker should resign, or be ousted from his seat.

Both Ms Greene and Mr Massie are opposed to further military assistance to Ukraine. With Mr Massie’s statement and joining Rep. Greene’s motion to vacate, the credibility of the threat suddenly grew. The addition of Mr Massie to her cause echoed the rebellion that fomented against House speaker Kevin McCarthy last fall, when he was ousted after less than a year on the job.

But Mr Johnson projected confidence on Tuesday.

“I am not concerned about this, I am going to do my job, and I think that’s what the American people expect of us,” Mr Johnson said of Ms Greene’s proposed ouster.

“It is, in my view, an absurd notion that someone would bring a vacate motion when we are simply here trying to do our jobs.”

Former president Donald Trump, responsible for some of the dysfunction within the GOP, attempted to mend fences last week. Last Friday, he met with Mr Johnson at Mar-a-Lago and praised him as “doing a very good job.”

“And I’m sure that Marjorie understands that, she’s a very good friend of mine. And I know she has a lot of respect for the speaker,” he said, referring to Ms Greene.

There are signs that more resistance will build over Johnson’s bills before the weekend. Rep. Chip Roy, member of the House Freedom Caucus, said that he would vote against the passage of a rule necessary to bring the five pieces of legislation to the floor but acknowledged that the speaker would find Democratic support for his gambit.

“The Republican Speaker of the House is seeking a rule to pass almost $100 billion in foreign aid - while unquestionably, dangerous criminals, terrorists, & fentanyl pour across our border. The border “vote” in this package is a watered-down dangerous cover vote. I will oppose,” he tweeted.

But like everything else in Congress, Mr Johnson’s future is down to a numbers game. But there’s plenty of reasons to believe that an ouster bid by the far-right will not succeed.

In fact, it could be Democrats that come to his rescue. Mr Johnson’s plan to pass the separate foreign aid measures will rely on Democratic support.

Democrat Brad Sherman, a senior member from California, told The Independent that he and others in his party would not “allow” a far right contingent of Republicans to oust their own speaker if Mr Johnson did “the right thing” and brought Ukraine aid up for a vote in the near future.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) speaks to reporters in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol Building on April 10, 2024 in Washington, DC
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) speaks to reporters in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol Building on April 10, 2024 in Washington, DC (Getty Images)

Others made similar comments throughout the day.

“There is no way I’m going to let Marjorie Taylor Greene, who wants to secede from the Union, take over the House,” Rep Jared Moskowitz, a Florida Democrat, told CNN. “There is no way I’m going to side with these people, stand by while they let the world burn.”

Mr Moskowitz’s comment appeared revealing of a possible broader trend among Democrats in Washington, that after the 7 October attack (which occurred just four days after the ousting of Mr McCarthy), America cannot afford to watch one half of the Legislative Branch descend into weeks of chaos and dysfunction.

There may also be simply weariness at the far right’s antics combined with a desire to see them punished, or just unrewarded.

Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas, expressed that sentiment to The Independent on Tuesday.

“These folks just want to take down the speaker and all it does, it weakens our party, it weakens our country,” Mr Sessions said. “Why threaten the speaker when the majority wants to get something done? I see these moves as really disrespect[ful] to the majority. It’s like, it’s got to be their way or the highway.”

He went on to torch his colleagues, Rep. Massie and Rep. Greene, as “wrong” and described them as “folks who believe in anarchy”.

“It leads to anarchy and weakness. It’s not right. It’s not good. I support Mike Johnson, I don’t always agree with him, [but] I think he’s got a good heart. He’s trying his best. He was dealt a terrible hand…and we saw what happened with Kevin McCarthy. It took us almost four weeks to get [the speaker’s chair] refilled.”

His comments evoked an anger that many more moderate Republicans continue to hold against conservative colleagues even as Mr Johnson reached out to at least some of the rebels who joined Democrats to take down Mr McCarthy last fall.

On Monday, Mr Johnson formally endorsed the re-election campaign of South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace, one of those rebels, as she faces a competitive primary, and allies of Mr McCarthy are reportedly boosting her rival.

However, Mr Johnson’s faces real danger if he decides to rely heavily on Democrats to save his speakership or pass the foreign aid packages.

He may not lose the gavel but he could lose the support of more hardline conservatives, or worse, Donald Trump.

A Trump-backed challenger this year could easily mean the end of the speaker’s political career. Under Louisiana law, any primary challenge against Mr Johnson would play out in November, with a close race heading to a runoff in December. That leaves plenty of time for the Trump wing of the GOP to mobilise against him at the district level if this weekend’s votes don’t go their way.

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