Mike Johnson Came to Ukraine’s Aid. Will Democrats Come to His?

Nathan Howard/Getty Images
Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Mike Johnson’s speakership has been building to this make-or-break moment.

On Saturday, after months of dithering, the House finally approved aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. The aid for each of those countries—provided in different forms—passed individually, with a complex Venn diagram of lawmakers coming together on each of the bills.

But there was one constant for all the bills: Republican opposition.

The Israel bill passed 366-58, with 193 Republicans and 173 Democrats for the bill, and 21 Republicans and 37 Democrats opposed.

The Taiwan bill passed 385-34, with just progressive Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) voting present. All 34 votes against the bill came from Republicans.

But most troublingly for Johnson, the Ukraine aid measure passed 311-112, with all 210 Democrats in attendance voting for the bill, and all 112 of the no votes coming from the GOP. As the bill passed, Democrats on the House floor waved Ukrainian flags and cheered in solidarity with the U.S. ally. They tried to hand flags out to Republicans, but only a few accepted.

Mike Johnson Should Tell Marjorie Taylor Greene to Bring the Smoke

After the vote, conservative Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-FL) told Democrats to “put those damn flags away.”

(All of the bills will be combined together, including with a bill to force the sale of TikTok and other national security priorities, before the package is sent to the Senate for one up-or-down vote.)

Ukraine aid has cast a shadow over Johnson’s entire six-month speakership. It also might mark the end.

Just days before Johnson took the speaker’s gavel, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky begged Congress for more munitions to defend itself from Russia’s brutal invasion. There seemed to be a real urgency in the situation, and Congress was positioned to act. Hamas had just attacked Israel earlier in the month, and there was a real desire to show support for the U.S. ally, which hadn’t yet begun its aggressive bombing campaign.

Naturally, congressional leaders saw an opportunity to combine Ukraine aid with Israel, packaging two important priorities together to win over lawmakers who might have been reluctant about one or the other.

But Johnson was just beginning his speakership. He didn’t want to upset some Republicans who were adamantly opposed to spending another dime on Ukraine, never mind the facts about the form of the aid or where it was really being spent.

Johnson—an untested and little-known conservative—was suddenly sitting atop a fractured GOP conference, delicately balancing the desires of a diffuse group of lawmakers. Inaction became a hallmark of his speakership.

But over the last six months, as Johnson has tried to find a functional GOP majority that can pass any Republican priority, he’s had to come to a brutal truth: There is no Republican majority.

On virtually any bill Republicans want to pass without Democratic support, there seems to be at least a few GOP lawmakers—because it goes too far, because it doesn’t go far enough, or just because they’re mad about other things—who refuse to go along with the team.

Johnson has had to confront the uncomfortable reality that, if he’s going to pass a bill as speaker, he has to do so with Democratic votes.

Why Are Republicans Playing Politics With Ukraine?

And now, as Republicans line up against him to remove him from his job, he’s facing an even starker reality: To remain speaker, he will need Democratic votes.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) introduced a motion to remove Johnson about a month ago, and has since then, she’s been joined by far-right Reps. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Paul Gosar (R-AZ). The trio has suggested that more Johnson detractors would come out from hiding once Johnson passed Ukraine aid. (The reality is, they don’t even need more Republicans to vote against him, if Democrats also vote against Johnson, as they did in every round of voting when Kevin McCarthy was speaker.)

All Johnson did was give Ukraine aid a vote, with the bill passing overwhelmingly. But the modern GOP has come to expect the speaker to block certain bipartisan priorities from getting an up-or-down. It’s one thing to give legislation that will fail a vote on the House floor, but it’s heresy to give something a vote that will actually pass—that is, if a small conservative minority deems it insufficiently conservative.

The one thing Johnson did violate with the Ukraine vote—ever so slightly—was the so-called Hastert Rule, named after disgraced former GOP Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), who was later convicted for sexually assaulting boys decades before his time in the Speaker’s office.

Hastert started a “majority of the majority” rule for putting bills on the floor—a standard which Hastert himself broke a dozen times when he was in charge.

Regardless, GOP Speakers have generally tried to live by that standard (even though every Republican Speaker since has broken the rule). But if there’s one argument the conservatives pissed off with Johnson and the Ukraine aid vote can make, it’s that one.

But Johnson’s patience for those rules had finally run out. He put his foot down, spoke publicly about his belief that this was the right thing to do, and said he was prepared to let the chips fall as they may.

He brought up four separate foreign aid bills—which also included unprecedented restrictions on TikTok—in the name of famed World War II-era British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, calling out the fecklessness of Churchill’s predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, notorious for appeasing Adolf Hitler.

Johnson knew he would face a Republican backlash for that decision, and he appears fully prepared to live with the consequences of his actions.

But just as the Ukraine decision may break Johnson, it also may make him.

Former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), deferred to Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) when asked about if Democrats should save Johnson. But if there was any indication of what she thought Democrats should do, she said Johnson took the House to a “place that is historic” despite objections from his own members.

She added that the motion to remove Johnson “disregards any respect for the institution, because you should be able to resolve your differences.”

“The institution really needs to be respected,” Pelosi told The Daily Beast. “And if people are doing something wrong, then the chair should be vacated, but if it’s a difference of opinion, that’s democracy.”

At least two Democrats—Reps. Tom Suozzi (D-NY) and Jared Moskowitz (D-FL)—have already said they wouldn’t vote to remove Johnson if Republicans intend to throw him overboard because of the Ukraine vote.

“You need to demonstrate that this chaos caucus doesn’t have the power that they think they have,” Suozzi told The Daily Beast. “We can’t allow them to punish him for doing the right thing.”

The top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee—Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA)—also indicated Democrats would have Johnson’s back.

Mike Johnson Is Gambling His Speakership on Ukraine. He May Lose.

Former Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said after the vote that “nobody should penalize the speaker for doing the right thing.”

“The right thing is what 350 people voted for—give or take,” he said. “But what was, I think, a very positive day for our country, positive day for the House, and certainly a wonderful day for Ukraine.”

As Democrats line up to defend the speaker, Johnson is, in effect, ceding power to Jeffries. That has always been part of the calculus of other embattled GOP speakers; if you rely on Democratic votes to save your speakership, you’re no longer, really, the Republican speaker.

That may make Johnson’s position untenable—particularly in the long-term—but for now, there are Republicans rallying around him.

Former speaker candidate Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA) told The Daily Beast that if Johnson leans on Democrats to stay in power, so be it.

“There’s nobody in the Republican conference today that can get 100% of the vote from the Republican conference,” Scott said. “And if they take him out, by definition, they have given the Democrats control over who is the next Speaker of the House.”

Other GOP members are holding out hope that Johnson’s right flank hates him less than the eight Republican rebels who removed McCarthy.

“I think they don’t distrust him as much as they did McCarthy,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) told The Daily Beast. “But he has been prone to fits and starts.”

For now, the motion to vacate the chair hangs over Johnson’s head, and it’s unclear how many Republicans would support an effort to remove him—or how many Democrats would save him.

It’s entirely possible the actual numbers come to mean a great deal. Johnson may be able to preserve some important optics if some Democrats—or perhaps all Democrats—simply sit out the vote to remove him. That way, no Democrat would have to actually vote for Johnson, and it would be unclear how close his detractors are to actually removing him.

But either way in that scenario, the message would be the same: Johnson is speaker because of Democrats. And it’s unlikely Democrats—or Republicans—will forget that.

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