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Ukraine Aid Could Cost Mike Johnson the Speakership
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Ukraine Aid Could Cost Mike Johnson the Speakership

'You do the right thing, and you let the chips fall where they may.'

House Speaker Mike Johnson walks toward the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on April 20, 2024. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Following his sudden and almost accidental rise last fall, Mike Johnson will mark six months as House speaker on Thursday facing questions about how long he can hold onto the job.

The Louisiana Republican’s tenure has been rocky from the jump—defined by constant GOP infighting and several high-profile and embarrassing defeats—but his standing has never been as precarious as it is today after he worked with hawkish Republicans and Democrats over the weekend to usher through nearly $100 billion in funding for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. He says he doesn’t care: “I’ve done here what I believe to be the right thing, and that is to allow the House to work its will,” Johnson said after Saturday’s votes. “You do the right thing, and you let the chips fall where they may.”  

While the money for Israel and Taiwan is relatively uncontroversial within the GOP conference, the money for Ukraine is remarkably so. More than 3 in 5 Republicans in a recent CBS News poll said the United States should not send weapons or military aid to the Eastern European nation invaded by Russia in February 2022, and those voters’ representatives in Congress have grown increasingly skeptical of such proposals. Firebrands like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia have gone so far as to label Republicans who support additional funds for Kyiv as “traitors.”

Johnson himself voted against some previous rounds of Ukraine aid as a backbencher in 2022, citing concerns about the funding’s supposed lack of oversight and the need to focus on more urgent domestic issues like the U.S.-Mexico border. He maintained that antagonistic posture after being elected speaker last October, pressing the Biden administration for a full accounting of money already spent and a strategy for how additional funding would help Ukraine bring an end to the war.

In the early months of his speakership, Johnson repeatedly vowed that House Republicans would not approve more aid to Ukraine without an accompanying border security measure. The White House obliged, backing a bipartisan proposal negotiated by Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona aimed at restricting the number of asylum seekers that could cross the border. But that package—which would have been paired with aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan—never made it to the lower chamber, in part because Johnson declared it would have been “dead on arrival” if it did. 

The speaker’s views on Ukraine aid have evolved in recent months, however, culminating in a stunning about-face last week as he signaled he’d bring bills supplying aid to Ukraine and other nations to the floor for a vote. “We’re going to stand for freedom and make sure that Vladimir Putin doesn’t march through Europe,” Johnson told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday. “These are important responsibilities. A strong America is good for the entire world. Since World War II, really, the responsibility for the free world has been shifted onto our shoulders. And we accept that role.”

Some of Johnson’s Republican colleagues feel betrayed. “I miss the old Mike,” GOP Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio told The Dispatch. “In January, Mike said, ‘My position is clear. Any bill that does not solve the problem and secure the border is not acceptable to the House.’ What happened to Mike Johnson?”

The Senate passed a $95 billion security package in February containing aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. On Saturday, the House finally followed suit with its own version of a similar foreign assistance package. The portion of the package containing $61 billion in Ukraine aid passed 311-112.

To advance the legislation, however, Johnson had to break an informal rule that has guided Republican speakers over the past few decades: Never bring a bill to the floor unless it has the support of the majority of the House Republican conference. Democrats unanimously supported the additional Ukraine aid, but more Republicans (112) voted against the bill than for it (101). Many Republicans in the opposition camp are irate over Johnson’s decision, and Greene is threatening to force a vote to remove him as speaker over it.

“He has completely betrayed the Republican Party. He has completely betrayed Republican voters all over the country. And he is absolutely working for the Democrats passing the Biden administration’s agenda,” Greene said Sunday on Fox News. “This is a speakership that is completely over with.”  

The other three pieces of the foreign aid package the House passed Saturday were much less divisive among Republicans, who overwhelmingly supported $26 billion in aid to Israel, $8 billion for Taiwan and other allies in the Indo-Pacific, and a hodgepodge measure containing sanctions and other tools to support U.S. allies in countering aggressors like Russia, Hamas, Iran, and China. That fourth piece of legislation also includes a provision that would ban TikTok in the U.S. if its Chinese-owned parent company ByteDance does not divest the popular social media application within a year. The House used a procedural mechanism to tie the four separate bills back together into one package before sending it to the Senate, which is expected to pass it this week and send it to President Joe Biden to sign it into law. 

Although Johnson wasn’t able to link a border security measure to Ukraine aid as promised, he attempted to bring a separate border bill to the floor on Saturday that largely mirrored a sweeping immigration measure known as H.R. 2 that House Republicans passed last spring. But Johnson couldn’t get the votes needed to bring the new border bill up through normal procedures and had to fast-track it under suspension of the rules—requiring a two-thirds majority (and thus Democratic votes) for passage. It failed 215-199, with just five Democrats joining all Republicans present in voting for it.

In the days leading up to Saturday’s votes, Johnson made the case for additional Ukraine funding in a way he never had previously, sounding more like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—a steadfast and vocal advocate for foreign assistance to U.S. allies—than the leader of a House Republican conference where former President Donald Trump’s America First philosophy has become a guiding policy force.

“I think providing lethal aid to Ukraine right now is critically important,” Johnson told reporters on Wednesday. The speaker is among a so-called gang of eight congressional leaders privy to classified intelligence that most other lawmakers are not, and Johnson cited such intelligence briefings on the state of Russia’s war against Ukraine as part of his evolving stance on the issue. If Putin is left unchecked, Johnson said, he could invade the Balkans next and “might have a showdown with Poland or one of our NATO allies.”

“To put it bluntly, I would rather send bullets to Ukraine than American boys,” Johnson continued. “My son is going to begin in the Naval Academy this fall. This is a live-fire exercise for me as it is for so many American families.”

GOP defense hawks praised Johnson for helping deliver the long-stalled aid despite the rising sentiment in the party against it.

“The stock in Mike Johnson has gone way up. I think the respect for him has gone way up—because he did the right thing, irrespective of his job,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas said Sunday on ABC News’ This Week. “That garnered a lot of respect, and also from the Democrat side.”  

But McCaul acknowledged that earning respect from Democrats is not what a GOP speaker may “normally want.” The move has put Johnson’s job in jeopardy—giving Greene additional ammunition with which to trigger the so-called “motion to vacate” that would force a vote to oust him as speaker—but the Louisiana Republican didn’t sound too worried last week, telling reporters that, although he could have made a “selfish decision” to withhold Ukraine aid to please hardline Republicans, he’s “doing here what I believe to be the right thing.”

GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida used a motion to vacate in October to seek a referendum on then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, setting off a chain of events that resulted in the first ouster of a House speaker in U.S. history. Johnson has repeatedly brushed off concerns that he could face the same fate, saying he’ll “let the chips fall where they may.” 

As of Monday morning, Greene’s motion is cosponsored by GOP Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Paul Gosar of Arizona. The trio predicts that additional Republicans who have not yet gone public will be willing to give Johnson the boot, but they’re not planning to trigger the vote imminently. Rather, his detractors want to let public opposition to the speaker grow and hopefully put pressure on him to resign of his own volition, as former GOP Speaker John Boehner did in 2015. 

“He needs to do the right thing to resign and allow us to move forward in a controlled process,” Greene said during her Sunday Fox News appearance. “If he doesn’t do so, he will be vacated.”

Johnson has thus far refused to step down, but if he were to do so, Massie told reporters, it would provide Republicans time to elect a new speaker without the urgency of an immediate vacancy that a removal vote would cause. “That’s the honorable and preferable way to do this,” Massie said. “We’ll try that for as long as we can, and for as long as the American people will tolerate our patience. But the American people are getting impatient, and so are a lot of people in here.”

Davidson, the Ohio Republican, is one such lawmaker who could probably be convinced to oust Johnson. “I think it’s clear that he wouldn’t have been hired doing the things he’s doing,” Davidson said when asked if he would support the effort to change speakers. 

Greene, Massie, and Gosar were notably not among the eight Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy back in the fall—but some of those lawmakers are souring on Johnson, too. Rep. Eli Crane of Arizona said he has an idea of what he may do but isn’t ready to go public yet, even as he criticized Johnson for his decision to advance Ukraine aid without tying it to U.S. border security. “I’m disappointed. He knows that. I’ve told him,” Crane said in an interview with The Dispatch. “The American voters who sent most of us here, they’re just tired of the status quo. That’s what they see continuing to go on up in Washington and quite frankly with the Republican Party.”

With a threadbare majority in which Republicans can’t afford more than one defection on party-line votes, Johnson’s only shot at surviving a motion to vacate would be to get Democrats to help save his job. Johnson has so far not made any overtures toward that end. “I have not asked a single Democrat to get involved in that at all,” he told reporters Wednesday. 

Still, several Democrats say they’re likely willing to come to Johnson’s rescue since he finally allowed Ukraine and other foreign aid to pass without significant partisan games. But he will have to ask, which is something McCarthy refused to do. 

“If his pride doesn’t allow him to do that, then he’s putting his pride ahead of actually trying to get things done,” Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan told The Dispatch. “McCarthy was dishonest, incompetent, and dismissive. So far, Speaker Johnson has demonstrated some incompetence, but not the other elements.”

Democrats who are open to helping Johnson remain speaker are divided on whether there should be additional conditions beyond the successful Ukraine aid vote. Kildee, for one, thinks Johnson will have to cut a deal with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. “We can’t put ourselves in a position where the functional majority of the House is bipartisan, but on the days when Mike Johnson chooses to, he can continue to weaponize every piece of legislation against us,” Kildee said. “If it’s gonna be a bipartisan majority, let’s make sure that’s 365 days out of the year and not just on the days that Mike Johnson needs us to bail him out.”

Democrats had opened the door to bailing out McCarthy in exchange for more bipartisan cooperation in running the House, but McCarthy declined to entertain such proposals. It’s unclear if Johnson would be any more receptive.

Progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York didn’t have specific demands in mind when asked what she’d need to save Johnson, but she seemed to indicate that there would be some. “I certainly don’t think that that’s something I would do easily or for free,” she said. “Democrats have a pretty big agenda, so we have a lot to pick from.”

Jeffries has made no commitments to bailing out Johnson, telling reporters that Democrats will have a discussion about what to do if a motion to remove the speaker is brought forward. Absent Johnson cutting a deal with Jeffries, there could still be enough Democrats willing to help him remain speaker, but that would involve a gamble in which Johnson hopes more Democrats defy their leadership than Republicans turn on him. 

Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat who recently won the special election in New York’s 3rd Congressional District to replace indicted and expelled Republican George Santos, said he would defend Johnson from a removal vote without conditions beyond the foreign aid package passing. “He shouldn’t be punished for doing the right thing,” he told The Dispatch

Rep. Ro Khanna of California, far left of Johnson politically, likewise told The Dispatch he is open to helping Johnson for allowing Ukraine aid to advance, but that he’d leave any discussion of additional demands to Jeffries and Democratic leaders.

“I don’t rule anything out, but he’s got to earn it,” Rep. Jared Huffman of California told The Dispatch, also deferring to Jeffries’ judgment on what that looks like. But Huffman also said Johnson doesn’t deserve effusive praise for his delayed support of Ukraine aid. 

“Better late than never, but no one should confuse Mike Johnson as a profile in courage or a champion for Ukraine,” he said. “He has coddled the Moscow caucus within the Republican conference. He has helped Putin tremendously by dragging this out for months.”

Even if Johnson does survive a removal vote, that does not mean he is secure in the speakership. There will almost assuredly be more tough votes between now and November in which Johnson can’t get unanimous support from his one-vote majority party and has to turn to Democrats for help. And after the election, House Republicans will hold internal elections to select their leaders for the next Congress. 

“There’s a lot of dissatisfaction within the Republican Party,” said GOP Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, who chairs the hardline House Freedom Caucus. “I think the speaker guarantees himself that there will be a contest.”

While Good said “it’s hard to defend” Johnson, he thinks it’s better that he faces a challenge to his speakership after the November elections than in a snap recall vote before then. Good supported the effort to remove McCarthy last year, but argued the circumstances are different now: Republicans’ majority has shrunk following several resignations and the New York special election, the November elections are much closer, and McCarthy, unlike Johnson, had a long tenure in leadership that aggrieved conservatives. 

An internal challenge to Johnson will matter less if the GOP loses its majority this fall. House Republicans elect their leader by a simple majority vote, and Johnson would likely be able to retain that level of support. But if the GOP holds the majority, Johnson would also need to stand for reelection as speaker on the House floor, which requires a majority vote of the full House and means a smaller number of aggrieved Republicans could join with Democrats to block him.

Massie is confident Johnson can’t win another speaker election on the House floor, and argued that his weak standing in the party is hampering the GOP’s efforts to raise money and hold onto and grow their majority. “Everybody in America knows that he can’t get 218 [votes] on January 3, 2025. So he is a lame-duck speaker,” Massie said. “We’re trying to keep the House. There’s a reason his fundraising is less than half of what Kevin McCarthy’s was.” 

Even if all goes well for Johnson—he escapes a recall vote, Republicans hold onto their majority, and he is reelected speaker in January—there may come a time again next Congress when Ukraine needs more aid. Will he remain an advocate for Kyiv then?

“Look, I’m a child of the ‘80s,” Johnson said last week. “I regard myself as a Reagan Republican. I understand the concept of maintaining peace through strength. That’s one of our guiding principles. It’s a really important philosophy, and it’s a big part of our party and our worldview. And I think here is an opportunity to make that stand at a really critical time in world history.”

Lindsey McPherson's Headshot

Lindsey McPherson

Lindsey McPherson is a congressional reporter who previously wrote for The Messenger and Roll Call.