Democrats Defang the House’s Far Right

A Republican does not become speaker of the House for the job security. Each of the past four GOP speakers—John Boehner, Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, and Mike Johnson—faced the ever-present threat of defenestration at the hands of conservative hard-liners. The axe fell on McCarthy in October, and it has hovered above his successor, Johnson, from the moment he was sworn in.

That is, until yesterday. In an unusual statement, the leaders of the Democratic opposition emerged from a party meeting to declare that they would rescue Johnson if the speaker’s main Republican enemy at the moment, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, forced a vote to oust him. Democrats chose not to help save McCarthy’s job last fall, and in standing with Johnson, they are rewarding him for bringing to the floor a foreign-aid package that includes $61 billion in funds for Ukraine and was opposed by a majority of his own members.

Democrats see an opportunity to do what they’ve wanted Republican speakers to do for years: sideline the far right. The GOP’s slim majority has proved to be ungovernable on a party-line basis; far-right conservatives have routinely blocked bills from receiving votes on the House floor, forcing Johnson to work with Democrats in what has become an informal coalition government. Democrats made clear that their pledge of support applied only to Greene’s attempt to remove Johnson, leaving themselves free to ditch him in the future. Come November, they’ll want to render him irrelevant by retaking the House majority. But by thwarting Greene’s motion to vacate, Democrats hope they can ensure that Johnson will keep turning to them for the next seven months of his term rather than seek votes from conservative hard-liners who will push legislation ever further to the right.

“We want to turn the page,” Representative Pete Aguilar of California, the third-ranking House Democrat, told reporters. He explained that Democrats were not issuing a vote of confidence in Johnson—an archconservative who played a leading role in trying to overturn the 2020 presidential election—so much as they were trying to head off the chaos that Greene was threatening to foist upon the House. “She is a legislative arsonist, and she is holding the gas tank,” Aguilar said. “We don’t need to be a part of that.” Democrats won’t have to affirmatively vote for Johnson in order to save him; they plan to vote alongside most Republicans to table a motion to vacate the speaker’s chair should Greene bring one to the floor, as she has promised to do.

McCarthy’s ouster by a group led by Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida paralyzed the House for weeks as Republicans considered and promptly rejected a series of would-be speakers, until they coalesced around Johnson, a fourth-term lawmaker little known outside the Capitol and his Louisiana district. Democrats were then in no mood to bail out McCarthy, who had turned to them for help keeping the government open but only weeks earlier had tried to hold on to his job by green-lighting an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.

Now the circumstances are different. The impeachment case has fizzled, and Democrats saw in Johnson’s move on Ukraine—despite months of delay—an act of much greater political courage than McCarthy’s last-minute decision to avert a government shutdown. They also respect him more than they do his predecessor. “I empathize with him in a way I could not with Kevin McCarthy, who was just this classic suit calculating his next advancement as a politician,” Representative Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a first-term Democrat from Washington State, told me recently, explaining why she planned to help Johnson.

Greene took the Democrats’ move to save Johnson as a validation of her argument against him—that he kowtows to the establishment rather than fighting for “America First” policies at any cost. “Mike Johnson is officially the Democrat Speaker of the House,” she wrote on X in response to the Democrats’ announcement.

After the Ukraine aid passed, Greene had hoped that a public backlash by conservative constituents against Johnson would lead to a groundswell of Republicans turning on him. That did not materialize. Only two other GOP lawmakers have said they would back her. Nor has former President Donald Trump lent support to her effort. Though Trump has been tepid in his praise of Johnson, he’s sympathized with the speaker for leading such a slim majority.

Greene first introduced her motion to vacate more than a month ago and insisted yesterday that she would still demand a vote on it. If she does, no one will be surprised when it fails, but that will demonstrate something America hasn’t seen in a while: what a Republican-controlled House looks like when its hard-liners have finally been defanged.

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