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Between Ukraine and Marjorie Taylor Greene, Mike Johnson has a tightrope to walk

 (Getty/EPA/Reuters)
(Getty/EPA/Reuters)

On Thursday, House Speaker Mike Johnson made two seemingly contradictory moves.

First, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced he had spoken with Johnson and explained that “quick passage of US aid to Ukraine by Congress is vital.”

Later in the day, Johnson announced the managers for the Senate trial of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas after the House voted to impeach him last month. Unsurprisingly, he named House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul and Homeland Security Committe Chairman Mark Greene as managers. He also threw a bone to the far-right by picking MAGA Republicans like Clay Higgins of Louisiana; Arizona’s Andy Biggs, one of the chief election deniers who voted to boot Kevin McCarthy; and Harriet Hageman, who beat Liz Cheney in they Wyoming Republican primary after Cheney vocally criticised the GOP and Donald Trump.

But more surprisingly, he also named Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the firebrand conspiracy theorist and ardent opponent of Ukraine aid, who last week filed a motion to vacate to initiate a no-confidence vote against Johnson.

Johnson’s decision to name Greene to the committee, especially after his talk with Zelensky, shows how the leader of the US House of Representatives has tried to balance keeping conservatives happy while also fulfilling his basic duties of governing: for every one act of governing, he has to pull one outrageous stunt that keeps the extremists in his conference from throwing him into the volcano the way they did his predecessors.

Johnson, of course, emerged as the consensus choice for Republicans after a three-week long feud triggered by Representative Matt Gaetz filing a motion to vacate to depose Kevin McCarthy after the then-Speaker passed a stopgap spending bill to prevent a government shutdown. Since then, Johnson’s majority has become even slimmer than McCarthy’s was, given the resignation of the former Speaker as well as Brian Higgins of New York, Ken Buck of Colorado and Bill Johnson of Ohio. The majority will stay slim as Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin heads for the exits on 19 April.

McCarthy’s ousting taught Johnson two lessons: the far-right will oppose anything resembling governing, but also that he cannot give them whatever they want because they will never be satisfied.

As a result, he’s learned to ignore his right-flank on issues that matter while offering a sacrifice to the right-wing volcano in exchange for them not tossing him into the lava. This was the case last week, when the House Oversight Committee held a disastrous hearing for its impeachment inquiry of President Joe Biden and then subsequently worked with a coalition of Democrats and more mainstream Republicans to pass spending bills to keep the government open until October.

That triggered Greene to file her motion to vacate. But Greene called her motion a “warning” rather than a “pink slip” for the Speaker and she did not call for a privileged motion, which would have required a vote to be held within two days. Some of the Republicans I spoke to that day, including some who voted to oust McCarthy, seemed uninterested in taking up Greene’s motion, so his job remains safe for now.

But Ukraine funding might be what knocks him off the tightrope he has carefully navigated so far. Johnson has refused to put a bill that the Senate passed that provides aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan on the House floor, given Republican opposition to supporting Ukraine.

As I wrote early last year, many far-right Republicans, including some of the loudest voices in Johnson’s conference, oppose assisting Ukraine on principle. Then there are some who might support assisting Ukraine but hoped to use aid as leverage for other priorities.

That opposition manifested itself throughout the end of last year and the beginning of this year, when Democrats and Republicans in the Senate engaged in negotiations to restrict immigration and provide more security provisions at the US-Mexico border in exchange for aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. But when the deal dropped in February, Johnson and the rest of House Republican leadership, largely at Trump’s behest, opposed it.

That led to the Senate passing a bill that only contained aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, which has sat dormant in the House given right-wing opposition to it. Indeed, before she filed her motion to vacate on the budget, Greene had long threatened to target Johnson if he pushed for Ukraine funding.

But given that Greene has filed her motion, Johnson has the chance to call her bluff.

As friend of The Independent’s Inside Washington newsletter Steven Dennis at Bloomberg has noted, many Democrats have said they would oppose a motion to vacate – a contrast from when every Democrat present voted to kick McCarthy out – but they want aid for Ukraine.

Two discharge petitions, which would force legislation to go to the floor without the speaker’s consent, exist to put aid to Ukraine to the floor. But doing so would require a majority of members – meaning a coalition of Democrats and Republicans – to put it on the floor. And discharge petitions have never been initiated for foreign aid.

Furthermore, some progressives have objections about the fact it provides unconditional aid it provides to Israel. So any bill would need enough Republicans to negate opposition from the left and the right. And even then, sidestepping conservatives for a discharge petition could be the move that turns his conference against him.

Johnson has so far handled the balancing act. But Ukraine aid might be the final weight that pushes the scales too much against him.