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Speaker Johnson’s job is on the line as the House returns

House Republicans are dreading their return to Washington on Tuesday, anticipating their deep divisions will jeopardize high-stakes legislation in a way that may end in the ouster of Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and further throw the chamber into dysfunction.

Whether Johnson remains speaker hinges on if the Republican decides to satisfy demands from his furthest right flank — or turns to Democrats, who could ultimately save his speakership, in a bid to pass his priorities.

“He’s gotten himself down to a Catch-22,” said Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), who chairs the largest ideological faction of conservatives, the Republican Study Committee.

The next two weeks are the most critical of Johnson’s nearly six-month tenure atop a very wobbly House with a majority that continues to narrow. His chief priority is passing a bill funding Ukraine that also sends aid to Israel and Indo-Pacific allies. Unlike a national security package that passed the Senate, House Republicans across the ideological spectrum insist that any foreign aid deal must also include measures that strengthen U.S. borders.

But the shape of that package will be fiercely debated and a route to passage is unpredictable and murky. With just a two-vote majority, Republicans have been unable to achieve consensus on such divisive issues, angering a far-right desperate for ideological purity. Choosing a bipartisan route is also complicated: getting lawmakers to agree on anything related to Ukraine and Israel, especially with outrage mounting about civilian casualties in Gaza, is an almost impossible task, given the partisanship and anger in today’s House.

Meanwhile, the House is expected to take up a measure by Friday to reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act before an April 19 deadline. But that measure has already torn Republicans apart, resulting in leadership pulling a December vote as far-right members and national security hawks sparred over requiring a warrant to review communications sent by Americans swept up in surveillance of foreign actors by U.S. spy agencies. GOP leadership plans to bring the warrant question to the floor this week, where its failure could further irritate the extreme flanks of each party.

Another speakership fight seven months before the elections would only further expose the chronic disarray in the House Republican Conference and the difficulty it has had in governing. Many House Republicans acknowledge their inability to agree on passing anything — whether narrow messaging bills that will not become law or more substantive legislation — may harm their quest to stay in and expand their majority.

If Johnson turns to Democrats, that likely means he would again bypass the Rules Committee — dominated by Republicans, including three from the far-right eager to block legislation — and turn to the so-called suspension calendar in which he would need two-thirds of the House for legislation to be adopted.

Dangling above all this is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) threat to oust Johnson from the speakership if he puts any bill sending money to Ukraine on the House floor, which is all but inevitable as the speaker has made clear the United States will aid the foreign ally in its fight against Russia.

Greene said in an interview she does not want to throw “our entire conference into pain and chaos again” by expediting a move to vacate the speakership and forcing the House to vote on whether to oust Johnson within two legislative days.

Nonetheless, she said: “Mike Johnson cannot be Speaker of the House because … not only has he betrayed our conference, he’s betrayed the values, the morals, the ethics, the principles of Republican voters all across the country,” adding, “We are a ship adrift at sea with no captain because our captain has left us. He has abandoned us and become the speaker for the Democrats.”

In a statement, Johnson said he “respects Marjorie” and acknowledged they “do have honest differences on strategy sometimes but share the same conservative beliefs.” The two were supposed to speak Friday, but neither team confirmed whether they ultimately connected.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) — a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus — declined to endorse or rule out supporting Greene’s threat, saying he’s focused on working with Johnson to figure out a path to strengthen the U.S.-Mexico border. But he also warned that it “would be a complete failure to put Ukraine on the floor without dealing with the border.”

Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), who chairs the conservative Main Street Caucus, called the motion to vacate “a terrible threat” looming over a speaker “who is honestly trying to figure out a way forward.”

“There is a 100 percent chance that after the motion to vacate, we will be left with a speaker that is less conservative than Mike Johnson, and for people like me who want to secure conservative victories, that would be a tragedy,” he said. “It would be disruptive to our nation and it would set back the cause for those of us who are interested in reducing the size, scope and intrusion of government.”

Former House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was ousted in a similar move in October — the first time a sitting House speaker was deposed — after he ignored the far-right’s demands to shut down the government and relied on Democrats to pass a short-term funding measure. Johnson was only elected after a weeks-long stalemate in which Republicans could not coalesce around three potential speakers, leaving the then-little-known Johnson to grab the gavel.

This time, however, the House majority is narrower — House Republicans have a two-seat edge, 218 to 213 Democrats. By the end of the House session in April, the majority will fall to a single seat once Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) retires. That means almost anything could happen if Greene — or just one other Republican, under party rules — wants it to. It takes just one member to force a motion to vacate vote over deposing the House speaker, which if introduced under special rules, can happen 48 hours after being introduced.

Greene has filed the resolution as a “warning,” but has yet to expedite its consideration. Unlike the eight Republicans who supported kicking out McCarthy, Greene says she cares about the consequence of challenging the speaker and has thought methodically about ensuring she doesn’t “do anything to risk any kind of way for Hakeem Jeffries to become Speaker of the House.” Jeffries (D-N.Y.) is the House Democratic leader.

But the congresswoman also made clear she intended to follow through on her threat.

“If he passes that $60 billion to Ukraine, and then follows up with FISA reauthorization, you’re going to see a lot more Republicans than just me coming out saying his speakership is over with,” she said.

In expressing her displeasure with Johnson, Greene said he has gone from opposing Ukraine aid as a rank-and-file member to championing it as speaker, with conditions. “He has made a massive departure of who he is, who we knew him to be,” she argued.

But Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), who chairs the moderate Republican Governance Group, defended Johnson’s actions given that as speaker, he ultimately represents the consensus of the country.

“You can’t let certain people who just don’t like this or that decision dictate the program,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t give anybody a reason to continue House Republicans in the majority. It just continues to demonstrate that we can’t govern.”

No House Republican has publicly backed Greene’s effort, even among those who are ardently opposed to sending more aid to Ukraine. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who led the charge to oust McCarthy, ruled out supporting Greene’s effort because he fears it could lead to Jeffries becoming speaker.

Democrats might bail out Johnson if Greene ultimately does invoke a motion to challenge his speakership. But many lawmakers have said publicly they would vote to table Greene’s resolution on the condition Johnson puts up for a vote any measure including Ukraine aid that can reasonably make it to the president’s desk. If all Democrats choose not to help Johnson, which happened in McCarthy’s case, Republicans would need only three members to remove his gavel. Once Gallagher resigns, they would only need two.

Many House Republicans, privately and publicly, are apprehensive about the weeks to come.

One rank-and-file Republican, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, pointed to the fact that most Republicans voted against Johnson’s plan to prevent a partial government shutdown last month as a stark warning sign.

“I think that was the biggest validation of lack of support for the speaker that we’ve seen today,” the Republican said. “It is the ‘silent majority’ now in the Republican conference that continues to move away from speaker.”

Johnson has yet to telegraph his plans to his leadership team, GOP conference or Jeffries, according to multiple people familiar with the debate. But with a conference that has rarely agreed on legislation that must also pass the Senate, Democrats and several moderate Republicans view the conversations as a waste of time while Ukraine runs out of ammunition.

The White House has been in touch with Johnson’s office but has not expressed openness to several changes to the bill the speaker has floated, according to a White House official.

“We need the Senate bill to pass,” the official said, echoing an argument House Democratic leadership has repeatedly made. “Any amendments whatsoever to it risk further delay. We do not support any amendments to the Senate-passed bill.”

The Senate passed a bipartisan $95 billion supplemental national security package in February, which allots $60 billion in new funds for Ukraine, $14 billion for Israel, $9 billion in humanitarian assistance to Gaza, and $5 billion to aid Indo-Pacific allies against Chinese threats. But House Republicans have deemed it a non-starter, putting the onus on Johnson to piece together the funding puzzle.

Johnson has hinted in recent interviews at several measures he thinks could offset the costs of a foreign aid package. Republicans could adopt a measure that would transfer seized Russian assets for Ukraine’s use, for instance, and another that would make mandatory repayment from Ukraine for any funds or military equipment loaned by the United States moving forward, an idea former president Donald Trump supports. (A previous Ukraine aid bill already gave Biden authority to expedite loan agreements with Ukraine and other allies.)

Johnson also pitched linking aid to reversing Biden’s pause on liquefied natural gas exports, which the GOP could tout as a win against the administration’s climate agenda. But if Johnson relies on Democrats to pass the measure with two-thirds support from the House, such a provision would have to be stripped to earn their support.

But none of that covers the border, which Republicans are bent on tackling in some way, especially in an election year.

In a statement, Johnson reiterated his commitment to “meaningful policy” addressing the southern border as part of the president’s supplemental funding request and Republicans hope the speaker forcefully uses his leverage to bring Democrats to the negotiating table.

While House Republicans were able to hammer out differences to overwhelmingly pass a border security proposal last year, the Senate deemed it too conservative. Knowing border security was the key to unlock funding for Ukraine in the House, a small group of bipartisan Senate negotiators agreed on a proposal — but it was aggressively shot down by Republicans.

It’s unclear what House Republicans could propose that would unify them. It’s also unclear if Johnson would work with Democrats on an issue that deeply divides them. Democrats are already a problem for the speaker because they favor aid to Israel coupled with humanitarian relief funds for those in Gaza.

House Democrats and a bipartisan group of lawmakers have already proposed two options that could free the speaker from having to cobble together new legislation. House Democrats have put the Senate-approved bill — that does not include border security — in a discharge petition, a measure that would “discharge” the bill from committee once 218 lawmakers sign onto it and trigger a floor vote without Johnson’s approval. So far, 190 Democrats and one Republican have signed the petition.

Another discharge petition, supported by 16 lawmakers, also includes funding for one year for Ukraine, Israel, the Indo-Pacific and border security measures. Final text of the legislation, which negotiators are still piecing together, will include humanitarian aid as well as language for confiscated Russian assets and leasing provisions for Ukraine, which the speaker is considering adopting in his own proposal, according to two people familiar.

But numerous Republicans are growing more comfortable in possibly supporting the petition, according to three GOP lawmakers, if Johnson’s package doesn’t attract the necessary 290 votes from Republicans and Democrats to pass.

It’s unclear how Greene would view the success of a discharge petition, although she has previously said she would not blame Johnson for it since he has no control over its consideration.

Dusty Johnson, the South Dakota Republican, acknowledged there is nothing he or his colleagues can do to prevent Greene from triggering a vote to oust the speaker — or to control the aftermath. All he can do is pray.

“The Serenity Prayer is insightful here,” he said. “There is nothing that realistically can be done to guarantee that that weapon is disarmed. Frankly, how freeing, because now every single one of us whose taken the oath of office to serve in the House understands that we just have to do our job in the best possible way, and let the chips fall where they will.”

Theodoric Meyer and Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post
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