Politics / April 22, 2024

The House Foreign Aid Bills Have Put a Target on Mike Johnson’s Back

After a vote in favor of sending $95 billion to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan passed, far right Republicans are threatening a motion to vacate the speaker of the house.

Chris Lehmann

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill, in March 2024.

(Graeme Sloan / Sipa USA / AP Images)

House Speaker Mike Johnson has defied the odds, and secured passage of a trio of supplemental foreign aid bills that direct $95 billion to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. Now, he awaits word of what his punishment will be.

The bulk of the aid approved in the weekend House vote—some $60 billion—will go to Ukraine, with $42 billion of that outlay funding military operations against the invasion that Russia launched in 2022; $10 billion of that total is classified as loans. The Ukraine aid package was the biggest source of dissension in Johnson’s vanishingly narrow House majority, since MAGA conservatives, in concert with their maximum leader in Mar-a-Lago, have heaped suspicion on the Ukrainian counteroffensive and its political leader, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zalenskyy. And like former president Donald Trump, they’ve argued that European powers, who’ve mostly supplied financial and humanitarian relief, should back the war effort more directly.

The GOP’s Ukraine agita reached its greatest pitch when MAGA performance artist and Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene announced that she was filing a motion to vacate Johnson’s speakership, as he continued to negotiate with the White House and the Senate on the aid package. This was the same procedural death sentence that claimed the speakership of Johnson’s predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, last fall. As the GOP majority has continued to shrink, thanks to retirements and the expulsion of New York Representative George Santos, just three votes for Greene’s proposed motion could send Johnson packing. (It took eight to squelch McCarthy’s hold on the speakership.)

The tortuous maneuvering around the aid package had ranged from Johnson’s decoupling the Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan outlays from one another to his letting a measure to ban TikTok go through as a sop to embittered MAGA economic nationalists, despite Trump’s own recent flip-flopping on the proposal. But throughout, Greene refrained from formally petitioning for the House to proceed on the motion, which would have triggered a vote within 48 hours. She clearly preferred to use the threat of a motion to vacate as a sword of Damocles over Johnson—while soaking up fresh boatloads of media coverage during the whole procedural face-off.

For all the intrigue surrounding it, the final House vote on Ukraine funding wasn’t especially close; it passed by a 311-112 margin, with one lawmaker voting present. The “no” votes were all Republicans, which leaves Johnson’s conference split nearly down the middle on the Ukraine question. House GOP members unsurprisingly voted overwhelmingly to back the $26.4 billion package to support Israel’s vicious and inhumane war in Gaza, with $9 billion of those funds earmarked for aid to Gazans, even while the same legislation cruelly cuts off support to Gaza’s central aid organization, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine.

In the immediate wake of the vote, Greene indicated that she’d likely keep the motion on ice, saying that she would let GOP lawmakers ponder the speaker’s fate as they faced the wrath of their constituents. But on a Sunday appearance on Fox News’ Sunday Morning Futures, she again vowed to bring it on, provided that Johnson doesn’t follow her advice to resign ahead of his conference reckoning. “Mike Johnson’s speakership is over,” she said. “He needs to do the right thing to resign and allow us to move forward in a controlled process. If he doesn’t do so, he will be vacated.”

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On paper, Greene has the support to back up her threat, with Kentucky Representative Thomas Massie and Arizona Representative Paul Gosar coming forward to say they would also vote to vacate Johnson’s speakership. If the motion follows the same strict party line balloting that claimed McCarthy’s speakership, Johnson could indeed be ticketed for the exits—only the speaker, unlike McCarthy, hasn’t completely alienated the Democratic caucus. McCarthy was a venal back-biter who essentially doomed his own prospects by trying to blame Democrats for the spending deal he authorized. Johnson is a full-blown MAGA toady who tried to get Trump’s backing for his imperiled leadership post by staging a mendacious, election-denying Mar-a-Lago press conference with the serially indicted coup plotter, but, unlike McCarthy, he doesn’t seem to be especially two-faced in his legislative work.

So the coming struggle over Johnson’s speakership may double as a sort of proxy battle over the hard right’s power over the GOP’s leadership caste. One small straw in the wind there could be House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik—a Trump sycophant who arguably outstrips both Greene and Johnson—voted no on the Ukraine bill after actually introducing the first congressional Ukraine package in 2022. Stefanik’s reversal on the issue is the mirror image of Johnson’s; the speaker voted against the 2022 measure only to broker the successor bill’s passage this weekend.

If Johnson ends up relying on Democrats to rescue his speakership, that may well be little more than a delaying tactic, since it’s precisely the sort of maneuver that no MAGA lawmaker can forgive. Stefanik, meanwhile, is reportedly on Donald Trump’s short list of vice presidential prospects. In other words, while the results of the weekend’s House vote might seem briefly disorienting, the underlying power dynamics in the Trumpified GOP remains very much the same.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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