Thursday, April 25

How Speaker Mike Johnson handles Ukraine funding issue could determine whether he gets ousted from his job

Days after his speakership was put on notice by a far-right member, Mike Johnson strategized with a key – and perhaps surprising – source: firebrand GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, the architect of the last effort to remove a speaker.

Gaetz, who is making clear he is firmly in Johnson’s corner, counseled the rookie speaker during a recent phone call to put some conservative wins on the board over the next few weeks as he navigates the threat of a potential motion to vacate the speaker’s chair, according to sources familiar with the conversation.

“I gave the speaker some unsolicited advice. That we’ve got to get into a fighting posture. And I was very pleased with how the speaker received that advice,” Gaetz confirmed in an interview with CNN. “”The speaker wants to put wins on the board for House Republicans, and we better start doing that. … I’m glad the speaker hasn’t rolled over to the $95 billion Ukraine supplemental that the Senate passed, and I think that he’s forging a better path on that issue as we speak.”

As speaker, Johnson has an arsenal of tools at his disposal to placate his right flank, who was infuriated by the recent bipartisan spending deal he put on the House floor. But whether or not Johnson keeps his speaker’s gavel may hinge on how he handles the next divisive policy issue coming down the pike: funding for Ukraine in its war against Russia.

Asked if he’d change his mind about supporting Johnson if the speaker puts a Ukraine bill on the floor that is not paid for by spending cuts, Gaetz said: “If there were no offsets we’d be really disappointed. I think we need to not deficit-spend to fund Ukraine. I also think that we need to have our own border prioritized. And I think Speaker Johnson shares that viewpoint.”

While GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia officially filed a motion to vacate before the recess break, she has yet to take the necessary step to actually force a floor vote on the resolution, essentially keeping the threat in her back pocket for now. Allies close to Johnson don’t believe Greene will actually follow through, and even if she does, they think she’d find little support from either side of the aisle for such a move.

Johnson publicly addressed Greene’s push to oust him from the speakership for the first time Sunday, calling it a “distraction from our mission,” and said he planned to meet her early this week.

“I think all of my other colleagues recognize that this is a distraction from our mission. Again, the mission is to save the republic,” Johnson said on Fox News.

“Marjorie is a friend,” Johnson added, noting that the two had exchanged text messages as recently as Sunday.

“She’s very frustrated about, for example, the last appropriations bills. Guess what? So am I. These are not the most perfect pieces of legislation that you and I and Marjorie would draft if we had the ability to do it differently,” Johnson said.

See what Greene said after filing motion on March 22 to remove Speaker Johnson

But given the ever-shrinking House Republican majority, Greene’s unpredictable nature and the shocking fashion in which former speaker Kevin McCarthy was ousted, Johnson also can’t leave anything to chance. People who have spoken to the speaker in recent days say he is keenly aware that the motion to vacate is looming large as he makes key decisions about Ukraine aid, which could determine the trajectory of his political career – whether it’s in the immediate term or more long term. Over the two-week Easter recess, Johnson has been quietly working with key lieutenants to chart a course on his Ukraine strategy.

“He has to shore up (support) after that budget debacle,” one GOP lawmaker who was disappointed by the spending package, told CNN. “It was a terrible deal.”

Democrats are signaling that they will save Johnson if he moves a Ukraine bill they can support. But if he moves a bill that is narrower than their demands, or includes new border restrictions, he risks putting off both Democrats and right-wing Republicans who are opposed to a dollar more for Ukraine. Plus, adding spending cuts to offset the Ukraine package — as Gaetz and other hardliners want— would prompt stiff Democratic opposition.

“My counsel to Mike is, start with the American people here at home and work from there. Don’t start from Ukraine and work that way,” said GOP Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, who added he has been in “constant communication” with the speaker and his team.

Roy, one of the loudest critics of the bipartisan spending law, would not say if he would back Greene’s effort to oust Johnson.

“Right now, we got to go back and get Republicans united to point out what our radical progressive Democrat colleagues are doing and present an actual competing vision,” he said.

Meanwhile, Greene is doing some strategizing of her own. She is working with a small group of allies to gauge where members stand, according to a lawmaker familiar with the conversations.

“People are talking about it,” the lawmaker said.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia speaks to reporters outside of the U.S. Capitol Building on March 22, 2024, in Washington, DC.

The day Greene filed her motion against Johnson, GOP Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky told CNN that Greene is in no rush to act.

“Presumably now we can start finding a replacement and still do investigations and still go on about our business,” Massie told CNN last week.

But he would not say if he supports ousting Johnson: “There’s no benefit to me answering that question.”

While Greene has been publicly criticizing the speaker on social media over the last several days, sources say she is keeping her actual plan close to the chest and only confiding in a few key allies.

As Greene and her allies slowly start to approach their colleagues, key members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, including ones who were supportive of McCarthy’s removal, are not signaling the same appetite for ousting Johnson.

GOP Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, who chairs the right wing group and was one of eight Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy, told CNN, “Nobody cares what Marjorie Taylor Greene says or thinks. And she’s a one-man show. She’s grandstanding and she wants attention.”has a frosty relationship with Greene, who is backing his primary opponent.

“Nobody cares what Marjorie Taylor Greene says or thinks,” Good told CNN. “And she’s a one-man show. She’s grandstanding and she wants attention.”

Good wouldn’t say if he would back voting to oust Johnson, though he said: “I can’t defend the actions that have been taken that are material in doing the same thing that the former speaker did.”

Asked if Johnson should be voted out, Good said: “I don’t have a comment on that. You know, and I think that is a comment in and of itself.”

Other hardliners are opposed to kicking out Johnson.

“I do not think now is the time to put America through another battle to select a new person as speaker of the House,” said GOP Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina. “Therefore I will not be supporting the (motion to vacate the speaker) if and when it comes to the House floor for a vote.”

But while many Republicans are sticking behind Johnson for now, they warned that his handling of Ukraine aid when the House returns in April could be critical to determining where their ultimate support lies.

GOP Rep. Andrew Clyde of Georgia said he didn’t believe Greene’s threat against Johnson’s job was serious but warned: “I think we need to be focused on securing our border, before we focus on securing … some other country’s border.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz leaves a closed-door House Republican meeting at the US Capitol on October 20, 2023, in Washington, DC.

Some are concerned that the chaos caused by another speaker fight could result in a coalition with Democrats that leads to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries becoming speaker, given the narrow margins in the House and the growing frustrations among Republicans. A number of GOP lawmakers made that point to Greene directly on the House floor as they tried to dissuade her from moving forward with her resolution to oust Johnson, sources told CNN.

“The last time I pulled the trigger on a motion to vacate, I could make a true promise to the country that we would not end up with a Democrat speaker of the House, and I fulfilled that promise,” Gaetz said in the interview. “And I’m not certain that I could do it again, with a one-vote majority as opposed to a four-vote majority.”

But Greene is pressing ahead both on social media and behind the scenes to keep up the pressure. She told CNN soon after she announced her plans that there are “quite a few” lawmakers supporting her effort but would not specify exactly how many or who is backing her.

“I have a number that have committed, but there’s also a large number that have already expressed to me a huge sigh of relief,” she added.

Meanwhile, Greene has been relentlessly targeting Johnson in a firestorm of social media posts and not being shy about her intentions.

“My motion to vacate is a force for change and Republicans better take it seriously and spend the necessary time planning and coming together for new leadership,” she posted on Thursday.

Haley Talbot and Sheden Tesfaldet contributed to this report.



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