Voices: Why Mike Johnson is bound to lose his first fight with Democrats

Welcome to the first fight of the Mike Johnson era of the House of Representatives.

The first order of business for the newly-installed speaker was always going to be passing an aid package to Israel. The deadly attack by Hamas earlier this month occurred four days into the House not having a speaker. That prevented Congress’s ability to assist the United States’s closest ally in the Middle East after 1,400 people died and Hamas took at least 230 hostages.

Passing an aid package should be a layup for Mr Johnson and a way for him to establish goodwill with the American public as well as the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Joe Biden. A recent survey from News Nation and Decision Desk HQ showed that 49 per cent of Americans sympathise more with Israel than the Palestinians.

Similarly, despite vociferous criticism from members of the Squad – most notably Rep Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who is Palestinian descent – the House Democratic caucus, including House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, overwhelmingly supports Israel.

Like most things with Congress, the question is not whether it will pass legislation to aid Israel, but rather what that package will look like and what the priorities will be. Earlier this month, President Joe Biden requested $105bn supplemental for Israel, Ukraine and security for the US-Mexico border.

That was likely never going to be possible because, as I chronicled earlier this year, plenty of House Republicans ardently oppose aid for Ukraine. Similarly, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky came to Washington, then-speaker Kevin McCarthy didn’t want to be seen in public with him. When the House passed its continuing resolution late last month – which ultimately led to eight Republicans ousting Mr McCarthy – the continuing resolution did not include aid for Ukraine.

Indeed, Mr Johnson spoke on Fox News on Sunday and told host Maria Bartiromo that he would bring an aid package for Israel to the floor this week without support for Ukraine, saying that “what’s happening in Israel takes the immediate attention, and I think we’ve got to separate that and get it through.”

That collides not just with Democrats in the Senate but also many Republicans in the Senate, namely Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Despite liberals calling him “Moscow Mitch,” he is perhaps the most outspoken Republican voice on supporting Ukraine. When Mr Zelensky came to Washington last month, Mr McConnell accompanied him throughout the Capitol.

Speaking at the McConnell Center at his alma mater, the University of Louisville, Mr McConnell made the case that the United States must pass an aid package for both Ukraine and Israel.

“Enemies abroad will be watching closely and waiting for America to falter,” Mr McConnell said on Monday. “Only our concrete and credible support can deter our adversaries in the future.”

Then on Monday evening, friends of the Inside Washington newsletter Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan reported that House Republicans’ proposed Israel aid bill would cut $14.3bn from the IRS that Democrats included in the Inflation Reduction Act last year.

This will obviously be a non-starter for Democrats given that this was their signature piece of legislation and the money is meant to raise revenue through taxes by ensuring wealthier Americans pay their fair share.

The stunt shows how hardcore of a partisan Mr Johnson is: he would love to force the hand of Democrats and allow for something as simple as supporting Israel as a chance to enact conservative goals.

It also shows that Mr Johnson is trying to maintain the honeymoon period he enjoys among his conference.

House Republicans unanimously nominated Mr Johnson to be the next speaker last week and he still has the good will of the conference. But he still has to contend with the same tight margins that ultimately doomed Mr McCarthy, to say nothing of the fact that the single-member motion to vacate the chair that led to Rep Matt Gaetz to stage a coup (R-FL) remains in place.

Ultimately, Mr Johnson will likely have to make the House swallow whatever legislation the Senate concocts. But he needs to show Republicans he at least tried to be a hardcore partisan warrior and achieve their goals in an Israel aid package before he loses this battle.