Democrats’ Plan to Save the Republican House Speaker

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michael barbaro

From “The New York Times,” I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”

[THEME MUSIC]

Today, against all odds and expectations, Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson keeps managing to fund the government, inflame the far-right of his party, and still hold on to his job. Now, as he prepares for his riskiest move to date, I speak with my colleague Catie Edmondson about why it may be Democrats who save his speakership.

It’s Wednesday, March 27.

[THEME MUSIC]

Catie, I’d like to start with this dramatic scene that played out in the House of Representatives a few days ago. You happened to be in the room for it. So just describe it.

catie edmondson

That’s right. Well, I was sitting in the press gallery in the House chamber Friday morning, watching for a spending vote to go through. And instead, what caught my attention was Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right lawmaker from Georgia, striding down the center of the aisle on the House floor. And she marched up to the House clerk’s desk, and she put a piece of paper into the hopper, into the basket for legislation that sits on the House clerk’s desk.

It immediately set off a rumor mill about what that piece of paper potentially could be. And sure enough, minutes later, we learned that she was essentially taking the first step in the process to call a snap vote to oust Speaker Mike Johnson.

And minutes later, Congresswoman Greene walks down the House steps, where I and a number of other reporters were waiting.

archived recording (marjorie taylor greene)

This is a betrayal of the American people. This is a betrayal of Republican voters.

catie edmondson

And she said what set this into motion was that speaker Mike Johnson had just again relied on Democrats to push through a spending bill to keep the government funded —

archived recording (marjorie taylor greene)

This bill was basically a dream and a wish list for Democrats and for the White House. It was completely led by Chuck Schumer, not our Republican Speaker of the House.

catie edmondson

— that many Republicans, in fact, a majority of Republicans in the conference opposed.

archived recording (marjorie taylor greene)

Our country is in crisis, and we need real leaders that know how to fight, that know how to walk in a room and don’t get rolled by the deep state and don’t get rolled by the Democrats.

catie edmondson

She said that Mike Johnson needed to be put on notice.

archived recording (marjorie taylor greene)

I am saying the clock has started. It’s time for our conference to choose a new speaker.

archived recording 1

Do you believe that there are more Republicans who support this bill —

michael barbaro

At which point, those of us watching from home are all thinking to ourselves, here we go again. We are about to lose another House Speaker to angry far-right house Republicans who, of course deposed the last Speaker Kevin McCarthy in the fall for similar ideological offenses, not being far-right enough.

catie edmondson

On first glance, it does seem like a case of deja vu. But I actually think that this instance is going to turn out to be very different than the last iteration of this we saw with Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

michael barbaro

Why would that be, Catie? Why do we think it’s not going to be the deja vu that it really looks like?

catie edmondson

Well, I think to understand the full arc or the full trajectory of his speakership, we have to rewind back to when he was initially elected Speaker. And if you remember when he was elected in October, this was seen as a really big victory for the far-right. As a rank and file member, Congressman Mike Johnson was super conservative, a super evangelical Christian, anti-abortion, anti-spending. Far-right Republicans felt that they had just elected really one of their own to the speakership, someone who was going to bow to their preferences and bring them to the table in a way that they felt Speaker Kevin McCarthy never really did.

And we got our first test as to how Speaker Johnson was going to manage the far-right flank of his conference almost immediately when he had to decide whether he was going to keep the government funded.

michael barbaro

Right. This was exactly the same situation that Kevin McCarthy found himself in.

catie edmondson

That’s right. And look, it was not a foregone conclusion that he would follow in former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s footsteps. I had questions when he was initially elected as to whether he would let parts of the government shut down, whether he would allow a total government shutdown to show the far-right that he really was one of them, to show that he was going to put up this fight.

And in fact, he did the opposite over and over again over the next five months, when he was faced repeatedly with these funding deadlines.

Each time, he made the calculation, we are not going to let the government shut down. He made the calculation that if he wanted to keep the government funded, he knew with his razor thin majority, he was going to have to turn to Democrats for votes. And that’s what he did.

michael barbaro

Right. And what you had told us when that was happening was allowances were being made for Johnson from the far-right because he was one of them. But the question was how long could he claim to be one of the far-right when he was repeatedly, in their eyes, betraying them by working with Democrats to get spending bills passed that this far-right group of lawmakers hated.

catie edmondson

Yeah, that’s right. Congress ended up having to pass all of these short-term stopgap spending bills to keep the government funded. They kept kicking the can down the road, and that brings us to this vote on Friday on the latest spending bill that he had to push through. It was the final package to make sure the government is funded through this fiscal year.

This package included bills to fund the Department of Homeland Security, which obviously has been a huge touch point for them in terms of their dissatisfaction with what’s happening at the Southern border, so this was always going to be a very politically tricky tranche of packages for negotiators to get through.

michael barbaro

And what ends up being proposed in this final spending bill to keep the government open?

catie edmondson

Well, it ends up looking kind of like an old school compromise bill in that no one is entirely happy with it but that there are wins for both parties to take home and sell to their base. And so for Democrats, they got $1 billion in new spending for child care subsidies for low income families, for Head Start, early education. And for conservatives, there was a lot of additional money in this bill to beef up security at the Southern border. So that was more money for additional border patrol officers, more money for additional detention beds for immigration enforcement facilities.

So on paper, it seems as though this is a bill that at least moderate or more centrist Republicans will be able to get behind. But in fact, what we see on the House floor when this bill is put to a vote is that not only do the far-right Republicans in the conference oppose it but actually a majority of Speaker Mike Johnson’s conference opposes the bill.

michael barbaro

And why was that?

catie edmondson

Well, I think part of it is simply the top line number. $1.2 trillion was the price tag on this bill, and that is just a really big number for lawmakers to wrap their heads around, particularly if you are a conservative member who has been saying for months that you want the Republican speaker to use their gavel to try to reduce federal spending.

michael barbaro

Got it.

catie edmondson

And so in order to pass this bill, Speaker Johnson again relies on almost all Democrats, really, to push this through. And when the vote is done and tallied, we see that more than half of his conference has in fact opposed this bill. They voted it down.

michael barbaro

Right. Which you have told us in the past, Catie, is an important mathematical equation. When less than half of Republicans vote on something proposed by a Republican speaker, it is basically considered the political equivalent of a cardinal sin.

catie edmondson

Yeah, that’s right. I mean, the unofficial rule within the House Republican conference is that a Republican speaker is not even supposed to allow a vote on legislation if he knows that less than half of his conference supports it.

michael barbaro

So that’s how we get to Marjorie Taylor Greene putting this piece of paper in the hopper, starting this process of attempting to oust Speaker Johnson.

catie edmondson

Yeah, that’s right.

michael barbaro

So we’re back to this question of why isn’t this likely to be the beginning of the end for Johnson? It certainly looks like he has done the deed that would cost him his job here.

catie edmondson

Well, one of the interesting things about this whole situation is that Congresswoman Greene has intentionally structured this bill that she filed to essentially leave this threat lingering over Speaker Mike Johnson’s head. This is going to be a slow boil. She’s not calling for an immediate snap vote. She’s going to let it linger and let him squirm a little bit.

michael barbaro

Right.

catie edmondson

But the other thing is that it’s not clear that the math is on her side. Obviously after she did this, we immediately went and asked Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy if they were on board for a second go, essentially. And a lot of them were very squeamish about the idea. It’s very unclear whether Marjorie Taylor Greene even has the support within the Republican conference to oust Mike Johnson. But of course, if you remember, a huge factor in all of this is, what Democrats decide to do.

michael barbaro

Right.

catie edmondson

When it came to the ouster of Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Democrats ultimately decided, sure, we’re going to join in with this motion to oust him. And it’s not clear that that’s the case for Mike Johnson at all. And in fact, there have been conversations internally among Democrats for weeks, even before Marjorie Taylor Greene files this resolution, talking about maybe they should try to save him if someone does try to oust him.

michael barbaro

And why would that be? Because it’s deeply unintuitive, Democrats trying to save this House Speaker. They didn’t do it last time. Why would they do it with Johnson?

catie edmondson

Well, the first thing to say is that honestly a lot of Democrats genuinely and personally despised former Speaker Kevin McCarthy in a way that they don’t with Speaker Mike Johnson. Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic leader, told us last month that they view Mike Johnson as more of a blank slate. But it goes beyond that.

I don’t think Democrats would save Mike Johnson for free, so to speak.

michael barbaro

And what would be their price?

catie edmondson

Well, their price would be for Speaker Mike Johnson to allow aid for Ukraine to come to a vote on the House floor. This is a huge priority for Democrats to make sure that the United States continues to help Kyiv fend off Russian aggression that they are now talking about if speaker Johnson were to allow that to come to a vote, if it were to pass, it might be enough for them to cross party lines and vote to save Mike Johnson if a Republican tried to oust him.

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

Catie, you just said that Speaker Johnson might end up being saved by House Democrats because he may push through funding for Ukraine. But my recollection is that Speaker Johnson has been hugely resistant to passing funding for Ukraine. He’s avoided doing it over and over and over again. So help me understand that.

catie edmondson

That’s right. As a rank and file Congressman, he repeatedly voted against sending aid to Ukraine. And within the first few months of his speakership, we saw it was an issue that he just really did not want to touch, that he did not want to bring up aid for a vote, really did not want to talk too much about his thinking on it. But over the past few weeks, we’ve started to see some of his calculations on Ukraine start to change.

michael barbaro

In what way?

catie edmondson

Well, it’s been kind of interesting to watch the tightrope that he’s walking here. Because publicly, initially, he was keeping his statements very vague. He never really wanted to address Ukraine aid specifically. But I started to hear in private conversations behind closed doors, he’s started sounding much more sympathetic to the plight of the Ukrainians, that he started telegraphing a willingness to put some type of aid package for Ukraine on the House floor.

I heard from a donor, for example, who attended a fundraiser last month that the speaker attended, in which he gave what sounded really kind of a rousing monologue about how he is a Reagan Republican. He believes in peace through strength. He believes the United States has a role to play on the global stage when it comes to fending off authoritarians.

He said Putin is a madman and the United States has a role to play and we’re going to do our job. We start hearing that he is making sort of similar comments to lawmakers. And this all, I think, comes to a head at the end of last week. And he puts out a statement saying when lawmakers return to Washington from their Easter recess, we are going to consider aid for Ukraine.

michael barbaro

And what explains why Speaker Johnson would suddenly want to fund Ukraine and kick yet another hornet’s nest in the pantheon of things that the far-right does not like?

catie edmondson

Well, part of it is that Senate Democrats had already called Speaker Johnson’s bluff on this issue. So starting late last year, he had tried to put off a vote on Ukraine aid in the House by saying that in order to bring up the issue, Democrats first needed to agree to sweeping changes on the border, thinking probably the Democrats would never agree to it. Instead, Senate Democrats went ahead and actually negotiated a deal, and speaker Johnson rejected that package and Senate Republicans followed his lead and voted it down.

And so now when it comes to Ukraine, Democrats are looking at Speaker Johnson and saying, OK, we gave you what you wanted. What’s your excuse now for not letting this aid come to a vote?

michael barbaro

Right.

catie edmondson

But I also think one of the big things that’s changed here for Mike Johnson as Speaker is that he is now carrying this very heavy responsibility. He has talked to donors about how shortly after being elected Speaker, how he went to the Situation Room and he received these briefings from the president’s cabinets on the situation in Ukraine.

He is now meeting with all of these leaders of NATO countries. And so part of the message that he is hearing when he’s in these rooms with Biden officials, NATO allies, is do you really want to be the person who is solely responsible for blocking this aid from getting to Kyiv? That is a really heavy message to internalize.

michael barbaro

So what we should understand to have perhaps happened to Speaker Johnson when it comes to Ukraine is a little bit of the journey he seems to have gone on when it comes to these spending bills, which is he has come to terms with the true stakes of his job, of what it means to not just be a far-right member of the House but the Speaker of the entire institution and as a result is ready to, or seemingly ready to, make some pretty big ideological leaps.

catie edmondson

Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. Essentially, as soon as he became Speaker, he was met with these high-stakes occasions, the first of which — making sure the government did not shut down. Now he is being forced to confront this question of what whether to continue sending aid to Ukraine, and his decision on that, putting some sort of aid package to a vote, will probably be the most politically risky move he’s ever made.

michael barbaro

Why is that even riskier than the spending bills, for instance?

catie edmondson

The issue of sending aid to Ukraine has become such a toxic issue for Republican voters. It’s a deeply emotional issue, to be honest with you, in a way that spending just is not. There’s some component of, I think among Republican voters, a sense of unfairness — why are we sending this money to another country instead of spending it on our own citizens?— that really resonates for people, and Republican lawmakers certainly are acutely aware of this.

michael barbaro

But as you’ve told us, Johnson has made it clear that he will take up this money for Ukraine very soon. So my question is, how does he do that in a way that could possibly get through the House without triggering a vote to oust him? Or if it does trigger a vote to oust him, which perhaps inevitably it would, how does he ensure that Democrats who want this Ukraine funding like this bill enough that they will cross party lines and save him?

catie edmondson

Well, there’s a whole menu of options being considered, and it’s my understanding that the Speaker himself has not really circled around any one particular option. What Democrats would love to see him do would be to just put the Senate passed aid package on the floor for a vote. But at the same time, that is exactly what Republicans would hate to see him do. And so we’re now in this realm where Speaker Johnson is searching for a path forward that is going to incite the least amount of backlash from his own conference but also hopefully keep Democrats happy enough that they potentially would still vote to save him from an ouster if it came to that.

michael barbaro

Catie, it sounds like no matter what this Ukraine funding package ultimately looks like, it’s going to need a lot of Democratic House votes to pass, and that these far-right Republicans like Marjorie Taylor Greene will be furious. And this could very well, I have to imagine, be the moment that a lawmaker like her says that’s it, we are done with Mike Johnson.

And if she succeeds in trying to do that — I know the math is wonky, but if she succeeds, I’m curious how Democrats are going to ultimately make the decision of whether to take the unprecedented step of saving a Republican House Speaker.

catie edmondson

Well, that would be quite the scenario. I think what it would look like is a long series of probably quite intense discussions among the Democratic caucus, where they would have to weigh, do we feel like Mike Johnson was an honest broker here? Did he deliver for Ukraine?

And look, you know, Michael, a lot of them have for weeks now individually been floating the idea that they would vote to save him if he did, quote, unquote, “the right thing on Ukraine.” And so I would have to think that these promises would also weigh pretty heavily over their calculations. Because what is the point of trying to get things done in a sort of coalition government if you pull the rug out under the leader at the last moment?

michael barbaro

There’s a word you just use that feels very important in thinking about this moment, Catie, and it’s the word “coalition.” We tend to think of our government, especially the House, as deeply partisan, Democrat, Republican. But time and again over the past year, year and a half, what we’re seeing, because the chamber is so closely split, is something resembling coalition government in foreign countries, where these occasional cobbled together groups that seem very unexpected get things done.

And if that were to happen with Ukraine, especially, it starts to feel like we have something resembling a somewhat functioning House of Representatives. Does that feel right?

catie edmondson

Yeah, I think so. I mean, you have to remember, again, let’s not give them too much credit. This is a very low bar that we’re talking about here. We’ve been calling it a governing coalition, but it’s really more of an emergency system to keep everything from going off the rails. This is making sure the government does not shut down and potentially a coalition emerging to continue sending aid to a democracy that is fending off the advances of an authoritarian.

That being said, I think you are right to point out that time and time again on these important decisions, the far-right has essentially boxed themselves out of discussions because it’s become very clear that they will not support anything that really could become law. And it is a stark departure from where they started the beginning of the year.

I remember when it became very clear that house Republicans were going to have the majority but that it was going to be a tiny majority, a lot of these Freedom Caucus members crowing about the fact that this was going to force the Republican speaker into going into coalition government with them. It would force the Republican speaker to bow to their preferences, to their whims. And instead what we’ve seen is the opposite. They have pushed the Republican speaker, whether it is Kevin McCarthy or Mike Johnson, into the arms of Democrats and in the process kind of rendered themselves powerless.

michael barbaro

Right. Instead of holding their speaker hostage, instead of holding the entire House hostage and really dictating the terms of these big debates, they’ve become really less and less relevant.

catie edmondson

Yeah, I think the story of this Congress is that when you have a group like the far-right Freedom Caucus who just says no to everything all the time, then you essentially deal yourself out of the process at key moments. And the end result of it has been that everyone else in Congress has decided the only way to move forward is to work around them.

michael barbaro

Well, Catie, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

catie edmondson

Thanks, Michael.

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Here’s what else you need to know today.

archived recording (ketanji brown jackson)

So I’m worried that there is a significant mismatch in this case between the claimed injury and the remedy that’s being sought.

michael barbaro

During oral arguments on Tuesday, a majority of the Supreme Court’s justices appeared to reject an effort by conservatives to limit access to a widely used abortion pill. The case revolves around a lawsuit brought by anti-abortion doctors and groups who accuse the FDA of unlawfully expanding access to mifepristone, which is used in about 60 percent of abortions.

But both conservative and liberal justices, including Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, questioned whether the small group of doctors challenging the FDA had suffered the type of direct harm that would give them the legal grounds to bring the case in the first place.

archived recording (ketanji brown jackson)

They’re saying, because we object to having — to be forced to participate in this procedure, we’re seeking an order preventing anyone from having access to these drugs at all. And I guess I’m just trying to understand how they could possibly be entitled to that, given the injury that they have alleged.

michael barbaro

And authorities are blaming the collapse of a major bridge in Baltimore on a cargo ship that had lost power moments before it collided with the structure. The collapse occurred at around 1:30 AM on Tuesday and sent at least eight construction workers into the water below. Six of them are still missing.

The ship’s crew had issued a mayday call shortly after losing power, giving officials a chance to stop cars from crossing the bridge and likely preventing an even greater tragedy.

Today’s episode was produced by Olivia Natt, Rikki Novetsky, and Jessica Cheung. It was edited by MJ Davis Lin with help from Rachel Quester, contains original music by Dan Powell, Elisheba Ittoop, and Marion Lozano, and was engineered by Alyssa Moxley. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

[THEME MUSIC]

That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

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