Democrats make shock move to back Republican speaker Mike Johnson

House Speaker Mike Johnson seen during a news conference
[Getty Images]

Top congressional Democrats announced on Tuesday that their party would throw Mike Johnson a lifeline if Republicans tried to remove him as speaker of the House of Representatives.

A handful had hinted they would support Mr Johnson for going against conservatives in his own party to pass $61bn in military aid for Ukraine.

"The time has come to turn the page on this chapter of Pro-Putin Republican obstruction," the House Democratic leadership team said in a statement, implying that Republicans who opposed support for Ukraine were aiding Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.

Mr Johnson, a devout evangelical Louisiana conservative who has strong right-wing views on social issues such as abortion, is now effectively leading a coalition government in the House.

That may be a bitter pill to swallow for Democrats who vehemently disagree with him on policy and who believe their party could benefit from extended Republican turmoil. However, co-operation with the speaker goes beyond just aid for Ukraine.

A convenient alliance

Earlier this year, Mr Johnson relied on Democratic votes to approve new operational funding for the US government, preventing a partial shutdown in services and keeping many of the Democratic spending priorities intact.

Three weeks ago, he rebuffed members of his own party to re-authorise a controversial national security surveillance programme.

Some conservatives had been pushing for his removal even before Ukraine reached the floor.

In March, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia filed a motion that would trigger a vote on his removal. She warned on Tuesday that she would soon bring that motion to a vote.

"I'm a big believer in recorded votes because putting Congress on record allows every American to see the truth and provides transparency to our votes," she said on social media.

"Americans deserve to see the Uniparty on full display," she added, using a term popularised by those who claim there is no real difference between Democrats and establishment Republicans.

However, rank-and-file House Republicans seem uneasy with the prospect of a new battle, just six months after the previous speaker, Kevin McCarthy, was booted from the job.

It took three weeks of intra-party wrangling and acrimony before Mr Johnson, a relative unknown, won the job with unanimous Republican support.

The Trump effect

Donald Trump has been a key, and somewhat unlikely, ally for Mr Johnson throughout this recent challenge to his leadership.

The former president, and presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee, has offered words of praise for the embattled speaker, saying in a radio interview last week that he is a "good person" who is "trying very hard".

He noted that Mr Johnson has had to work with a razor-thin Republican Party majority in the chamber.

Democratic support for Mr Johnson, along with Mr Trump's continued backing, is likely to secure his hold on power at least though to November's election for all 435 House seats.

If Republicans retain control of the chamber - which is far from guaranteed - Mr Johnson will not be able to count on Democratic support, however, opening the possibility of another moment of reckoning among conservatives.

For now, however, Mr Johnson said he was focusing on doing his job.

"We have to do what we believe to be the right thing," he told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday.

"What the country needs right now is a functioning Congress."