Will Democrats save Mike Johnson’s job as speaker of the House?

March 7, 2024; Washington, DC: President Joe Biden shakes hands with Speaker of the House Mike Mike Johnson before he delivers the State of the Union
March 7, 2024; Washington, DC: President Joe Biden shakes hands with Speaker of the House Mike Mike Johnson before he delivers the State of the Union Photo: Josh Morgan-USA TODAY

If there’s one thing that Republicans like more than conspiracy theories, it’s chaos. True to form, after yet another round of drama about funding the federal government, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson finds himself facing the prospect of losing his job after just five months. The question is whether Democrats would step in to save him, despite his smooth persona representing a greater threat to the party’s policies, including on LGBTQ+ rights, which he has long battled against.

Johnson, who has the public demeanor of an accountant and the self-regard of a Medici, finds himself in a precarious situation for two reasons. The first is that the budget bill that he managed to pass through the House passed solely because of Democratic support. The majority of Republicans voted against it.

The measure infuriated the hard-core right, which insisted that the budget be slashed, even though the Democratic Senate would never agree to such a bill and President Joe Biden wouldn’t sign it. Johnson insisted that the bill, which included some items that conservatives had asked for, was the best that could be expected given political reality.

That wasn’t good enough for Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), the transphobic, conspiracy-loving publicity seeker. Greene filed a motion to vacate the chair, essentially calling Johnson’s tenure as speaker into question.

The threat is nothing new for Greene. She made the same one back in January. For the time being, Greene hasn’t forced a vote on Johnson’s job, but she can at any time once Congress returns from recess after Easter.

Compounding Johnson’s woes is the fact that his majority keeps dwindling. Two of the adults among the Republicans have decided to retire in the middle of the term, and they did so in the most telling way possible. Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), who in any other Congress would be standard issue Republicans, are apparently so fed up with the current state of the House that they opted to time their departure so that it was too late to hold special elections to fill their seats. That means their seats will be vacant until January 2025.

With Buck’s and Gallagher’s departures and the loss of disgraced former Rep. George Santos’ (R-NY) seat to a Democrat, the Republican majority now stands at 217 to 213 Democrats.

Since it only took eight Republicans to remove former Speaker Kevin McCarthy last October, Johnson has even less room to maneuver. By all accounts, he’s better at making people take his vows of sincerity at face value than McCarthy ever was. Moreover, Republicans aren’t exactly ready for another extended round of pin-the-tail-on-a-speaker again, since the last one lasted three weeks.

The breaking point may still come, however, and soon enough. The issue likely to trigger it is Ukraine. Johnson previously quashed a tough bipartisan border deal from the Senate that he had demanded as a precursor for aid to Ukraine after Donald Trump decided he wanted border chaos as a campaign issue. Now Johnson is apparently saying that he will bring a bill for Ukraine aid to the House floor for a vote after all.

That would be enough to send the hard-right into outright revolt against Johnson, leaving an opening for Democrats to negotiate a deal. Democrats have indicated that they are open to saving Johnson’s job if the Ukraine bill is one that they can vote for.

However, Johnson may not want a bill that can pass. The measure that he has in mind has extreme border security measures that Democrats won’t accept. There’s also a hint that the $95 billion in aide may be in the form of a loan, which Trump suggested, which would be a complete non-starter, not just for Democrats but for many Senate Republicans.

The real question is whether Johnson is worth saving. For the sake of the institution, it’s better to have some functioning head, and at present, Johnson meets that minimal definition.

But as his flip-flop on the border measure shows, he’s not a man of his word. He’s a man of Donald Trump’s word. Considering his repellent history and legal background, is this the man Democrats want in charge of certifying the election in January 2025?

While there are no good Republican choices for speaker at this point, there are some really bad ones. And the current office holder is a really bad one.

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