Johnson careens toward uncharted speaker territory

Mike Johnson is drawing closer to a career-defining choice for a Republican speaker — whether to rely on Democratic help to stay in the job.

With three Republicans endorsing a motion to terminate his leadership, Johnson will need Democratic support to survive if Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) follows through on her threat to force a vote on his removal. And more conservatives could follow, enraged by Johnson’s strategy on his foreign aid package.

But if he can weather this storm, even his critics say he may be able to keep his gavel the rest of the term.

“This is one of the last big, crucial votes that we’re going to take. And we’ve known that for a long time. I think that’s why it’s so disappointing for so many people,” said Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.), one of the conservatives who voted to remove former Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

“But I think there’s a chance, if he gets through this one, that he might just make it all the way” to November, Crane added of Johnson, whom he hasn’t ruled out voting to oust. “Nothing that I’m telling you I haven’t said to his face.”

It seems to be a gamble Johnson is prepared to take, with the House set to vote Saturday on long-stalled Ukraine aid. And while he has taken proverbial beatings over government funding and spy powers legislation, hardliner fury has clearly reached new peaks this time. He’s repeatedly insisted that he’s not considering Greene’s pending motion to oust him, which Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) have now endorsed, and vowed he won’t bend to their demands that he resign.

Still, once that vote is forced, Johnson faces an impossible decision. He could rely on Democratic votes to save his gavel, but that would severely undermine him in the eyes of not just conservatives, but the GOP base. And hardliners have signaled they might keep seeking votes to boot him if they fail the first time, meaning he could be forced to repeatedly rely on President Joe Biden’s party — assuming they’re willing to help him more than once.

But if Johnson resigns or is ultimately ousted, it plunges the House back into speaker-less chaos with no clear alternative, months before a major election. And while Democrats have signaled that they will help save him if there is a formal referendum on his speakership, that is exactly the type of bipartisan rescue mission that many Republicans predicted would have ultimately doomed McCarthy, if eight Republicans hadn’t successfully voted him out on the first try.

Except that theory was never tested.

Johnson “would probably get the Democrats to save him, but I don’t know if that’s a permanent condition,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who led the charge in ousting McCarthy.

Gaetz added that while he doesn’t support booting the speaker, it “would be a real challenge” for him to stay in such a scenario.

There’s one other point working in Johnson’s favor: A growing number of his own members don’t believe he’ll be in the GOP’s top spot come next year anyway, as POLITICO first reported, meaning some of his critics are content to wait.

“Everybody is sort of short-term right now,” Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) said, asked if Democrats helping Johnson on a so-called motion to vacate was politically dangerous for the speaker.

Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), chair of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus, made a similar remark to a gaggle of House reporters on the Capitol steps Friday, remarking that “we’re going to have a contest in November for speaker.”

Indeed, most House Republicans have no appetite for another chaotic speaker fight before they have to pick their leadership team for next year, which will happen after Election Day. They already witnessed eight of their own lock arms with Democrats to oust McCarthy last fall, against the broader party’s preference, miring their conference in bitter infighting that they’ve struggled to stop even months later.

“I’m kind of sick to my stomach,” said centrist Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who acknowledged he didn’t know if it was tenable for Johnson to stay with help from Democrats. “It just takes one or two people to throw the whole team under the bus.”

Ousting Johnson now, Republicans like Bacon warn, would only remind voters of the House GOP’s general mess and hurt their chances of keeping the majority as they try to win another term in power. Plus, they see further displays of disarray as badly distracting from former President Donald Trump’s campaign to return to office.

More fighting over the speakership would also turbo-charge existing grievances within the badly divided conference. Johnson is under pressure from some of his members, including multiple Biden-district Republicans, to exact retribution against hardliners who have made it next to impossible to open structured debate on bills without the help of Democrats.

Quite a few Republicans insisted in the months after McCarthy’s ouster that their colleagues would not repeat any kamikaze-style attempt to remove a speaker — but now those members are tempering their doubts.

Greene has said that she’s waited to trigger an ouster vote for weeks in order to give colleagues room to figure out a succession plan. Any aspiring successor to Johnson, however, can’t publicly entertain taking the gavel without hurting themselves ahead of another leadership fight in November — and the position doesn’t look particularly appealing right now. Not to mention that conservatives acknowledge firing Johnson is unlikely to result in a speaker who is any more closely aligned with them.

“In this situation, I have a hard time envisioning how things get better taking Mike out,” said Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), a Freedom Caucus member.

Still, more and more Republicans are noticing subtle jockeying taking place ahead of the next opportunity to seek the top spot, while Johnson tries to stay afloat. Each member of his leadership team is facing scrutiny, like when Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) split from the speaker during a recent surveillance fight. Now members are watching to see who backs up Johnson on Saturday in support of Ukraine aid.

“Are they going to come out [against Johnson] seven months early, with the job not even open? No. They are going to do what they need to do. … You don’t have to declare ‘I want to be speaker’ to talk and try to negotiate,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.).