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House, and Speaker Johnson,  move Ukraine aid toward a key vote

House Speaker Mike Johnson is leaning on cautious support from Democrats in the deeply divided chamber to push aid bills toward passage.
House, and Speaker Johnson,  move Ukraine aid toward a key vote
Posted at 8:02 PM, Apr 19, 2024

Staring down a decision so consequential it could alter the course of history — but also end his own career — House Speaker Mike Johnson prayed for guidance.

A conservative Christian, the speaker wrestled over whether to lead the House in approving $95 billion in desperately needed war-time aid for Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies, which many in his own Republican majority opposed — some so strongly they would try to boot him from office.

Or, he could do nothing, halting the flow of U.S. aid and potentially saving his own job but ensuring his place as the House speaker who led America’s retreat from the global stage and left Ukraine to fend for itself as it loses ground against the Russian invasion.

As Johnson met with colleagues late into the night this week at the speaker's office, they prayed on it.

“And then he told me the next day: I want to be on the right side of history,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Not quite six months on the job, Johnson’s leadership will help determine if the U.S. is able to hold its standing as what the speaker has called a “beacon of light” for the world, or if the military and humanitarian aid is left to crumble at a pivotal moment for the country, its allies and the speaker’s own livelihood. Voting is expected this weekend.

“He's learning," said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker.

Gingrich praised Johnson for not being cowed by the hard-right Republicans seeking to remove him from office, and instead reaching into his own deep well of beliefs as a Ronald Reagan-era Republican with an expansive view of the role of the U.S., its allies and his own speakership to make a decision.

“This is the U.S. House. This is not a political playground,” Gingrich said. "We’re talking about real history, we’re talking about whether Russia potentially occupies Ukraine.”

Johnson tumbled into the speaker's office last fall, a relative unknown who emerged only after a chaotic internal party search to replace Kevin McCarthy, who was the first speaker in U.S. history to be booted from office.

Almost an accidental speaker, Johnson had no training and little time to prepare. One of his main accomplishments was helping to lead Donald Trump’s failed legal efforts to overturn the 2020 election loss to Joe Biden in the run-up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

From the start, the question hanging over the fourth-term Louisiana lawmaker was apparent: Would Johnson become a speaker with a firm grasp of the gavel, utilizing the power of the office that is second in the line of succession to the president?

Or would the House speaker, who portrays himself as a “servant leader” in the Christian tradition, be beholden to the unruly, essentially ungovernable Republican majority, many aligned with former President Trump?

“This is a Churchill or Chamberlain moment,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democratic leader, referring to British leaders from the World War II era.

SEE MORE: House's Ukraine, Israel aid package gains Biden's support

After months of dithering delays over the Ukraine aid, Johnson appeared this week determined to move past the populist far-right flank, and rely on Democrats to push the package forward, highly unusual in the deeply polarized House.

He had met recently with Trump, who objects to much overseas aid and has invited Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” in Ukraine, presenting his plan and avoiding public criticism from the former president.

Trump also gave Johnson a needed nod of support by panning the effort from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of the presidential hopeful’s strongest allies in Congress, to evict the speaker.

In return, Johnson told Trump he could be the “most consequential president yet” if he is returned to the White House.

At the same time, Johnson has been speaking privately with President Biden, who gave Johnson a boost by quickly endorsing his foreign aid plan.

Still, what used to be considered the way Congress worked, the shared commitment to bipartisan compromise, has become such a political liability that more Republicans, including Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Paul Gosar of Arizona, said they would join Greene's effort to oust Johnson. Some others said he should simply resign.

“I don’t think he’s being courageous. I think he’s fallen right in line with the swamp," said Rep. Eli Crane, R-Ariz., a hardliner who voted to oust McCarthy and is considering the same for Johnson.

During his short term as speaker, Johnson has made a practice of convening lawmakers behind closed doors at his Capitol office for what are often long meetings. What some view as maddening sessions of endless arguing, shrinking the power of the speakership, others appreciate as him listening to lawmakers.

As crowds of spring tourists ushered past his office this week, Johnson holed up with lawmakers. One meeting dragged until midnight. The next day he displayed an unusual resolve.

"History judges us for what we do," Johnson said during an impromptu press conference in Statuary Hall.

“I could make a selfish decision and do something that’s different, but I'm doing here what I believe to be the right thing,” he said.

Johnson disclosed that his son is headed to the Naval Academy this fall.

“To put it bluntly, I would rather send bullets to Ukraine than American boys,” he said.

“This is a live-fire exercise for me, as it is for so many American families. This is not a game. This is not a joke.”

With the threat of his removal intensifying, Johnson said he would "let the chips fall where they may” on his own job.

On Friday, an overwhelming majority of the House, more than 300 lawmakers, more Democrats than Republicans, voted to push the package toward passage.

Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., said of Johnson: “I, for one, am just very proud of what we would all refer to as a profile in courage in the face of these kinds of threats.”

But Democrats said they were baffled and saddened it took Johnson so long to do what they see as the right thing.

“This is a profile in delay,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.

Some Democrats are saying that, unlike their refusal to help McCarthy stay in office, they would vote to save Johnson's job — if he wants it.

A growing list of Republican House speakers, starting with Gingrich, were chased from office or, like John Boehner and Paul Ryan, simply exited early.

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