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

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) spent Tuesday offering his two cents on Republican speakers of the House—starting with Mike Johnson (R-LA).

Massie announced during a closed-door GOP meeting that he was joining perennial GOP agitator Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) in her crusade to oust Johnson. Massie said the current speaker has failed to deliver conservative wins and it’s time to go, reciting a talking point that’s bounced around right-wing circles for months but only animated a couple rebels to move against the speaker.

In Massie’s assessment, Johnson’s life experience simply hasn’t “equipped him for this job.” He’s worse for the Republican conference, the hard-right libertarian maintained, than another beleaguered Republican speaker, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).

“Kevin didn’t do anything bad and eight voted against him,” Massie told a horde of reporters huddled around him outside afternoon House votes. “Mike Johnson is going for the Triple Crown here against our base.”

Another Republican Is Now Saying Mike Johnson Needs to Go

The revolt against Johnson’s speakership comes as his conference weighs the future of Ukraine aid—perhaps the most divisive topic facing the House GOP. In an attempt to satisfy both the GOP’s Ukraine aid supporters and its detractors, Johnson has proposed putting aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan up for separate votes on the House floor this week. Any bill that gets enough support will then be packaged together and sent over to the Senate. That way, under Johnson’s plan, Republicans who support Israel aid won’t have to stomach a vote for Ukraine, which Democrats are insisting move with the Israel money.

Democrats are more than happy to do the heavy lifting for a Ukraine aid vote, as conservatives lash out that Johnson is once again violating his earlier promises and ceding the GOP majority to the Democrats. But if conservatives think they can remove Johnson over his decision to finally fund Ukraine, Democrats may have something to say about that.

Republican disdain for Johnson—who spent years in Congress cultivating a reputation as a staunch conservative and amiable colleague—has been gathering in the GOP conference ever since he was thrust into the speakership nearly six months ago. Whether that animosity would harden into another internal coup d’état has been the question haunting Johnson’s speakership since the outset.

Massie joining Greene to oust Johnson breathes new life into that question. As of Friday—when Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) quits Congress—it will only take two Republicans to remove Johnson, assuming every Democrat sides with the rebels. That’s an increasingly dubious assumption, however, as Democrats signal they won’t go along with GOP ouster over Johnson funding Ukraine.

While some Democrats very well may come to Johnson’s aid, Massie has suggested there’s far more support to oust Johnson than anyone knows. Plus, Democrats are hardly inclined—at least in large numbers—to save the GOP the embarrassment of defenestrating another speaker and demonstrating to voters a real problem governing.

With all that to consider, Massie is confident Johnson is toast.

“The trigger point for me to co-sponsor this was that I realized this will get called and he will lose the vote,” Massie said, suggesting Johnson will see more Republicans vote to remove him than McCarthy.

In Massie’s view, Johnson has two choices: go out like McCarthy in a humiliating takedown, or admit defeat and slink into retirement like former GOP speaker John Boehner (R-OH), whose downfall Massie accurately predicted in 2015.

“It’s better to have him acknowledge that and resign in the manner that Boehner did, so that there could be controlled replacement like there was when Boehner left,” Massie said.

It appears that Johnson is taking the former approach, at least for now.

A defiant Johnson dubbed himself a “wartime speaker” battling his party’s competing factions and a paper-thin majority.

Johnson told reporters Tuesday morning, he’s not going anywhere, invoking yet another GOP speaker, Newt Gingrich (R-GA).

“Former Speaker Newt Gingrich posted a couple days ago on his social media that this is the hardest challenge that’s faced a speaker—probably in the history of the country—at the moment,” Johnson said.

In Johnson’s telling, Gingrich said the challenges facing the speaker are “maybe comparable to the Civil War—but maybe worse—a single-vote margin, and a difficult time when the nation is terribly divided.”

Adding to the complexity is Ukraine, which has become a true flashpoint in the GOP.

For months, Republicans have tried to use their party’s apathy toward supporting a U.S. ally from Russian attack as leverage to pursue conservative border security policies. So far, that approach has failed—a bipartisan Senate border deal collapsed when Republicans said it didn’t do enough to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border. (And, of course, Trump lobbied against it to keep railing against the so-called “open border” at campaign rallies.)

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) makes a statement to members of the news media in Washington.

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) makes a statement to members of the news media in Washington.

Leah Millis/Reuters

Plenty of Republicans are furious that Johnson’s proposal decouples border security from Ukraine aid. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) told The Daily Beast that she isn’t keen on removing Johnson because “we can have this fight in January,” but she said she was disheartened by Johnson’s plan.

“I do share the disappointment that members have, that our speaker did not insist on some type of reversal of the Biden policies at the border,” Malliotakis said. “I am concerned. Let’s put it this way—I’m seriously considering voting against the rule for that reason.”

Voting against the rule—a traditionally party-line procedural vote—has been much of the Republican conference’s preferred manner of flaunting their frustration with the speaker. While not as chaotic as removing the speaker altogether, the play hamstrings Johnson’s ability to advance policies unless he works with Democrats.

Conservative Rep. Cory Mills (R-FL) told The Daily Beast that he is also considering tanking the procedural vote unless he sees Johnson pursue more right-wing priorities. He said a few GOP lawmakers have “red-line items” that they’re pressuring Johnson to work into any foreign aid package.

As Rep. Aaron Bean (R-FL) put it to The Daily Beast, GOP border provisions are a “necessary ingredient in the cake that we’re baking this week.”

Without them, any foreign aid proposal is “not going to taste like cake, and it's gonna be hard for everybody to eat it without that ingredient.”

As Johnson tries to sort through his conference’s hard-right demands, other members of his conference are losing patience, waiting for Johnson to put a plan on paper. Iran’s strike last weekend has sparked a renewed sense of urgency to pass Israel aid, which has been stalled in Congress—along with Ukraine aid—since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

“I want to see a plan, I’ve seen no plan,” conservative Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) told The Daily Beast. “The plan they tell me about is not achievable.”

Even as many Republicans criticize Johnson’s approach to Ukraine aid, there are still only two GOP members publicly backing the mutiny. Several of Johnson’s Republican allies have come to his defense since Massie joined the motion to vacate—a handful even took to social media Tuesday even to defend the speaker in what appeared to be a coordinated campaign.

Even former President Donald Trump has given Johnson his stamp of approval. At Mar-a-Lago last week, Trump condemned Greene’s motion to vacate and acknowledged Johnson’s challenging role atop the House GOP.

Why Are Republicans Playing Politics With Ukraine?

Many Republican lawmakers told The Daily Beast they fear the trauma and instability of another speaker battle. With so few congressional work days before Election Day—the House is only scheduled to be in session for another 55 days before the election—even if Johnson isn’t the perfect leader, he’s willing to stand in the line of fire.

“You can spend time two ways, productively or unproductively, and prioritize the things that are going to get you the best outcomes for the greater good,” Rep. Jack Bergman (R-MI) told The Daily Beast. “And in this case, the motion to vacate does not serve any positive purpose.”

Other Republicans worry the motion to vacate isn’t just “unproductive”—it’s counterproductive, driving Johnson into the waiting hands of Democrats who are eager to see aid to Ukraine pass.

“If the self-proclaimed conservatives actually want to be conservative, they would go along with the speaker's plan, which is separate votes, separate voting reforms,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) told The Daily Beast. “Otherwise, they will be responsible for having the Senate bill with no changes, which is not preferred.”

It’s true that if Johnson wants to keep his job, he will almost certainly need Democrats to back him. Already, Moskowitz (D-FL) and Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY) have said they would vote to keep Johnson in the speakership if Republicans try to remove him. Other Democrats are signaling that their vote could be contingent on Johnson advancing Ukraine aid.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA)—a leadership and Biden administration ally—called the situation in the GOP conference “a mess.” Should the GOP rebels try to bring the motion to vacate, Khanna said he would “strongly consider voting for a motion to table.”

For now, Khanna is holding out hope that Johnson will stand by his plans and put Ukraine aid on the floor to end the months-long stalemate.

“I’ve always thought that, even though I had strong ideological disagreements with Johnson,” Khanna said. “We came to Congress together and he’s always struck me as true to his word, and I don’t think he’s gonna submit to bullying.”

Other Democrats have a more skeptical take on the Johnson speakership. Progressive Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) accused the speaker of playing games with Ukraine, warning that if Johnson leaves elements like humanitarian aid to Palestinians out of a package, he won’t be rushing to his rescue.

“Whether this sort of Monte Carlo approach to the legislation—splitting it up, exposing the various pieces of it to the vagaries of individual votes and amendments—I mean, if that causes us to miss the moment, I’m not going to be interested in helping the speaker,” Huffman told The Daily Beast.

But Democrats also acknowledge the tortured political calculus Johnson is facing.

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) speaks to reporters during a weekly press conference.

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) speaks to reporters during a weekly press conference.

Michael McCoy/Reuters

If Johnson works with them, Rep. Don Beyer (R-VA) speculated that Johnson would bleed more support within his conference, making a motion to vacate even more certain. “Now I don’t know how our support for him affects his support within his own caucus,” Beyer told The Daily Beast.

“If 20 of us vote not to vacate him, does that mean another 20 Republicans vote to vacate?” Beyer asked. “I don't know.”

That sort of calculation has always been part of the math for GOP speakers. Aides to Boehner, McCarthy, and former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) always told reporters that, once you rely on Democrats to keep you in the speakership, your speakership is functionally over.

Indeed, according to Malliotakis, such collaboration with the Democrats would be a grave—perhaps lethal—strike against the speaker.

“I guess he could do that,” she said. “I don’t see how that builds trust within the conference.”

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