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Mike Johnson

Johnson’s Ukraine conundrum

This is Day 168 of Mike Johnson’s speakership. And it’s clear now the Louisiana Republican has a very stark choice in front of him — pass a Ukraine aid bill or remain speaker.

It may turn out to be this simple for Johnson, according to multiple sources we spoke to in and around the House Republican leadership.

Johnson is facing a torrent of GOP criticism in advance of even introducing a promised new Ukraine proposal. FISA reauthorization is in trouble. The impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden is sputtering, while Johnson is having to hold onto the impeachment articles for Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for a few more days in a bid to make sure Senate Democrats don’t just dismiss them. Things haven’t gone that well for the House Republicans the last few months, to say the least.

We don’t put too much stock in Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) frequent rants. But Greene’s five-page letter on Monday, in which she made the case to replace Johnson, should be viewed quite seriously. If Greene goes through with the motion to vacate that she filed last month after Johnson pushed through the FY2024 government funding package, there’s a good chance he could be ousted.

Right now, Johnson’s best friends are pain and fear. Pain because what House Republicans went through last October following the ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy was so bad that it seared into their souls. A floor fight over picking a third speaker in six months isn’t going to work for many of them. And fear because if Johnson can’t be speaker, who can?

That’s a very reasonable question, of course. But hardline conservatives like Greene don’t think like that. They believe Johnson is a nice man, but he’s misplayed a series of legislative brawls since becoming speaker. Sending tens of billions of dollars to Ukraine with a majority of Democratic votes would be the final straw for Greene and other House hardliners.

Greene’s view is drawing some support inside the GOP Conference. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) seems to be entertaining supporting a motion to oust Johnson. Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.) told us he represents “A lot of people [who] feel the same way she does. And, you know, in many ways, I do as well.” Crane, however, did wonder whether now is the appropriate time to dump Johnson.

Among Democrats, the prevailing view is that Johnson will eventually put the $95 billion Senate foreign aid package on the floor, pass it with overwhelming Democratic support and remain in the speaker’s chair with the minority backing him or ducking the vote altogether. We don’t find this to be a very feasible plan. Imagine having a Republican speaker propped up by Democrats. How would Johnson raise money? How would Johnson rally Republicans to his side on any issue of the day?

Johnson truly is in one of the most difficult spots we’ve seen a speaker face. Consider this: Johnson is going to struggle to pass a long-term FISA reauthorization bill this week — there’s a classified briefing today with senior intelligence officials. GOP hardliners like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) are voting against the rule, raising questions about whether or not Johnson can even win a simple majority vote. As we’ve noted, the Ukraine situation is a mess. Israel aid is nowhere. FAA reauthorization is looming. And at some point, there will be an emergency funding bill for the Francis Scott Key Bridge disaster.

But what to do about Ukraine is truly jamming Johnson up. What Johnson has floated so far for a Ukraine package — the REPO Act to use seized Russian assets or overturning Biden’s policy on new LNG export applications — isn’t gaining overwhelming traction with his GOP colleagues.

It seems very remote that Johnson can pass any bill that includes tough border security provisions alongside Ukraine aid. The White House won’t accept reversing Biden’s ban on new liquified natural gas export applications. The tax bill looks dead. Israel funding isn’t the draw it once was. In other words, there are little or no sweeteners that will help the Ukraine package slide through the House.

To illustrate the bind House Republican leadership is in, Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) reiterated the long-held view among conservative hardliners that he’d only consent to consideration of a Ukraine funding bill if it was paired with H.R. 2, the stringent border security package Republicans passed nearly a year ago.

Yet that means effectively that Perry can’t accept any Ukraine bill because H.R. 2 is a no-go with Senate Democrats or the White House. If you’re a House Republican who will only vote for a Ukraine bill that can’t become law, you are, by definition, opposed to Ukraine funding.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise noted House Republicans “have a one-seat majority. Every day is going to be complicated and difficult for us to move things. That’s not just going to be the case with Ukraine. It’s going to be the case for a lot of other things we’re trying to do.”

House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, who had his own bid for speaker derailed by former President Donald Trump, added that House Republicans have “been down this road before” and shouldn’t push Johnson out.

“He was duly elected,” Emmer said. “This is who the body wanted. Let’s keep doing our business.”

— Jake Sherman, John Bresnahan, Max Cohen and Mica Soellner

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