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Mike Johnson Is Very Close to Losing Control of the House

The beleaguered House speaker is facing a possible uprising over Ukraine aid.

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La.
House Speaker Mike Johnson is opposed to the foreign aid package the Senate passed. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

House Speaker Mike Johnson is facing a test that wouldn’t have made his predecessors sweat: to stop a bill that may already have enough support to pass from coming to the floor at all.

Whether he is able to block the funding package that passed the Senate 70-29 this week — $95 billion to restock American weapons and assist Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan — could make or break his coalition. As Democrats try to win Republican allies to advance the bill, Johnson’s far-right critics are watching.

“The job of the speaker, ultimately, is to control the floor of the House,” Ohio Rep. Warren Davidson told NOTUS on Tuesday. “Of course it would be a failure for the speaker to lose control of the floor.”

Speakers in recent decades have kept a tight grip on the House schedule, blocking politically perilous votes and bills that might undercut the majority’s negotiating power. But having fumbled the seat previously held by expelled Rep. George Santos to Democratic candidate Tom Suozzi in Tuesday’s special election in New York, Johnson will soon be able to lose only two Republicans on a given bill if all Democrats oppose it.

A united Democratic caucus needs to win over only a handful of Republicans to temporarily take control of the chamber. Several Republican legislators who might be inclined to support more aid for Ukraine are retiring and more immune to pressure than their colleagues, so picking off GOP allies could be easier for Democrats than usual.

And one Republican who supports more military aid but isn’t retiring, Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon, declined to rule out supporting a discharge petition — a procedural tool a simple majority can use to force an up-or-down vote on a given bill. “I want to talk this all through with the speaker and majority leader,” he told NOTUS Tuesday, adding that he thinks some of the Senate funding could be cut. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican, also said Wednesday he is working with a bipartisan group on a new Ukraine aid bill he believes the Senate would accept.

Efforts to sidestep the speaker are usually a long shot, and it’s not clear what form the bill might ultimately take. Some progressive lawmakers are opposed to more aid for Israel as included in the Senate bill. And ultimately, rank-and-file Republicans are also reluctant to defy their leaders. Johnson said this week he opposes the bipartisan Senate bill and is pushing for a one-on-one meeting with President Joe Biden to negotiate different border security legislation.

“It’s violence against the speaker,” Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican, told NOTUS of discharge petitions.

Some Republicans are preemptively defending Johnson in the event Democrats do manage to force a vote on foreign aid.

“No, it’s a failure on the part of the people that would sign such an America last discharge petition,” Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz said when asked where blame would lie. Tennessee Rep. Tim Burchett agreed, emphasizing that Johnson “has the slimmest majority in the history of majorities.”

And Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia said any Republicans who support Ukraine aid “would be making a major mistake,” but if a discharge petition succeeds, “I don’t know how you could say that’s a failure of leadership.”

Democrats have already laid the groundwork for a discharge petition, but they know they face an uphill climb. Only two discharge petitions have led to a bill coming to the House floor since 1995.

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Democrat who sits on the Rules Committee, admitted as much but said, “we’re going to do everything we can to support our allies.”

Democrats have a compelling argument as they try to win over Republicans. Members share an implicit understanding that this Congress may be the last chance to pass more Ukraine assistance for a while, especially as presidential candidate Donald Trump makes increasingly pro-Vladimir Putin comments on the campaign trail.

“At the end of the day, we will find a way to support Ukraine,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican who voted for the legislation. “If we don’t, we’re going to regret it.”

Johnson has already proven he doesn’t have a firm handle on his conference. Last week, he brought two measures forward only for them to publicly fail.

Johnson defended the failures at the time as showcasing the “messy sausage-making process of democracy.” When asked by NOTUS if he liked that approach, Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers answered with a flat, “No.”

Discharge petitions aren’t the only way to overpower Johnson. A pro-Ukraine coalition of Republicans could instead refuse to support his agenda until the Senate bill receives a vote, or use a host of even bolder procedural maneuvers to force a vote.

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The uncertainty only adds to a month full of hurdles for Johnson to clear. He is facing another government shutdown deadline in March, with right-wing Republicans demanding hard-line tactics and steep spending cuts. They aren’t ruling out another motion to remove the speaker, as Gaetz wielded to oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy last year.

“I’ve always said the tool needs to remain at the disposal of the conference to be able to make those decisions when they see things that are not going the way they want them to go,” said Texas Rep. Chip Roy.

Haley Byrd Wilt is a reporter at NOTUS.