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House Installs New Speaker: YOLO Johnson

 Member Newsletter
April 18, 2024 11:38 a.m.
US Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

I don’t pretend to even understand the moving parts of how this is supposed to work. But almost out of the blue Speaker Mike Johnson has decided to go all-in on an aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. As this started to come into view over the last two or three days, I’ve had a number of TPM Readers write in to say, why is this happening? What’s the catch? Or, why is he walking the plank like this? What is he sacrificing his Speakership for? And I don’t have a really good answer.

Let’s start by noting the one thing that is at least a catalyst if not the trigger: the thwarted Iranian missile attacks on Israel. That clearly changed the game for many House Republicans. Passing some Israel aid became a necessity for a number of them. I assume that Johnson concluded that without assistance from at least some Democrats that too wouldn’t be possible and that he had no choice but to move ahead with Ukraine aid too.

According to reports from earlier in the week, when Hakeem Jeffries was asked how Democrats should respond to Republicans asking for support on a motion to vacate, he said to tell those Republicans to sign the discharge petition. That’s the parliamentary procedure with which the signatures of a simple majority of the House can mostly force a vote on a particular bill. (It’s a touch more complicated than that. But for present purposes that’s more or less it.) But in the last two days Johnson appears to have gone all in, scheduling a pretty robust aid package for a vote, all but guaranteeing a Freedom Caucus-led attempt to topple him and forcing himself to rely on Democratic votes to save him from that fate. Yesterday he was on TV leaning into the absolute necessity of moving aid to Ukraine, pitching it with traditionally Republican rhetoric — American strength, freedom, etc. — but still nonetheless making the case for the necessity of Ukraine aid on the merits.

I’m still not entirely sure what to make of this. It should be obvious I have zero brief for this guy. But I will note that what one consistently hears from House Democrats is that they see him differently than McCarthy. To them McCarthy was a backstabber and a notorious liar. They say Johnson has been straight with them. And to be clear, as at least I understand it, this means simply that he hasn’t lied to them, told them one thing and then double crossed them, etc. That presumably provides a level of trust that they can come to some understanding with him.

I’m sure we’ll see criticism of this. How can Democrats find themselves sustaining the Speakership of a far-right winger who meaningfully participated in the January 6th coup by providing colleagues with a purported constitutional argument for why COVID-based changes to election year vote administration were unconstitutional? Good question. How on earth did we get here? But for what it’s worth, if I’m understanding the tacit deal in the works, it’s worth it. Ukraine aid is absolutely critical and time is running out. Taiwan aid is important too. Israel aid is more complicated in my mind. But on balance I support it.

There’s some discussion about whether he will also try to get pieces of Republican border legislation in one mega bill. We’ll have to see the details on that. He has to know that pushing that too far loses him some or all Democratic votes. We’ll have to see where this goes. There’s also talk among Republicans of using this must-pass piece of legislation to increase the threshold for “motions to vacate”, i.e., the ability for one or two GOP showboating freaks to kick off a new emergency clown derby.

This is interesting because it solves what has always seemed to me to be the basic problem: Sure, maybe Dems save Johnson’s speakership. But why don’t Greene and Massie and whoever else wants to be on TV just wait a week and try again? Dems can’t permanently sustain his Speakership without some kind of very tangible power sharing. But if the deal included increasing the threshold or allowing only members of the leadership to push such a vote that problem might go away. That would also empower Johnson. And at some level parliamentary politics remains a zero sum game. But I’m not sure it’s the worst bargain over the coming months. We’ll see.

I’m still not sure what’s happening here. But something seems to be happening. I can’t see how Johnson hasn’t already gone too far rhetorically, saying the Ukraine aid is a moral and national security imperative, to go back. It’s also not totally clear to me he has any understanding with Democrats. I see some smart folks saying he’ll be out within the week and that he’s simply accepted that. Maybe so. Who knows?

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