Furious House conservatives rail at Johnson but haven’t altered his Ukraine plan

Furious House conservatives rail at Johnson but haven’t altered his Ukraine plan

House conservatives are furious with Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) for championing another massive round of Ukraine aid.

But for all the grousing, threats and public protests, none of the critics are ready to use the one tool that lends them leverage in the fight: a motion to vacate. Without it, they’re left with no viable way to stop Johnson.

Conservatives raced around Capitol Hill on Thursday in various demonstrations of outrage over Johnson’s leadership style, in general, and his handling of the Ukraine debate, in particular — a fury fueled by news reports suggesting Johnson was ready to weaken a rule empowering a single lawmaker to force a vote of no confidence against the Speaker.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — a frequent critic of the Speaker who has already introduced a motion to vacate against him — went so far as to carry her resolution onto the House floor during Thursday’s lone vote.

But for all the dramatic flourishes, the day ended much as it began: with Johnson moving forward on a package of foreign aid bills that are expected to pass through the lower chamber, with overwhelming Democratic support, in a series of votes on Saturday.

The day’s developments are the latest reflection of the enduring dilemma facing Johnson as he seeks to steer contentious legislation through a divided House in the face of persistent opposition from a rambunctious right flank, which has lost faith in his willingness to fight for conservative policy priorities.

Time after time, Johnson has chosen to cut deals with President Biden for the sake of enacting prominent bills, infuriating conservatives who’ve pressed him to use the GOP’s House majority to secure greater Republican victories.

Those dynamics were front and center in the recent debates over federal spending and government surveillance — two issues on which Johnson joined forces with Democrats to ensure the bills became law. And they’re shaping the debate again this week as he takes the plunge to advance another massive round of foreign aid, which includes more than $60 billion in new Ukraine funding, over the noisy objections of his most animated hard-line critics.

Those critics aren’t taking defeat silently.

Almost a dozen members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus surrounded Johnson in the back of the House chamber after Thursday’s lone vote, hounding him to resist any modification to the motion to vacate — the mechanism used to remove former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in October.

The full-court press proved to be a success: Johnson announced Thursday afternoon that he would not increase the threshold to trigger a vote on ousting the Speaker, siding with the conservative rabble-rousers over moderate lawmakers looking to avoid chaos in the chamber.

“Recently, many members have encouraged me to endorse a new rule to raise this threshold. While I understand the importance of that idea, any rule change requires a majority of the full House, which we do not have,” Johnson wrote on the social platform X. “We will continue to govern under the existing rules.”

But the mere consideration of the change landed the Speaker in further hot water with conservatives — and more of them now appear open to booting Johnson than when Thursday began.

Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) warned that she would support his ouster if he went ahead and changed the threshold. And Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) — who previously said he was against a motion to vacate, because it might lead to a Democratic Speaker — railed against Johnson’s recent legislative moves and suggested he would do the same.

“I think a motion to vacate is something that could put the conference in peril, and Ms. Boebert and I were working to avoid that,” Gaetz said. “Our goal is to avoid a motion to vacate. But we are not going to surrender that accountability tool, particularly in a time when we are seeing America’s interests subjugated to foreign interests abroad.”

Even Greene — who marched Thursday from the chamber to the Capitol steps, her motion to vacate in hand, to denounce Johnson to reporters — has so far declined to force a vote on her resolution.

Greene has hammered Johnson for sealing spending deals with Biden, for opposing a new warrant requirement surrounding the government’s surveillance powers, and for championing the $60 billion in new Ukraine aid, without ensuring it will be accompanied by tougher security measures at the U.S.-Mexico border — an early demand of the Speaker that he abandoned this week in announcing his four-vote strategy for securing foreign aid.

“Republican voters want actions. They want to be protected from the destructive Democrat agenda,” Greene told reporters Thursday. “And Republican leaders aren’t doing it.”

Yet even the prospect of Johnson changing the motion to vacate threshold did not compel Greene to commit to forcing a vote on her ouster resolution. Asked about her reluctance to pull the trigger, Greene suggested she was waiting for more of her GOP colleagues to endorse her measure.

“I’m not acting out of emotions, or rash feelings, or anger. I’m doing this the right way,” she said. “And I’m allowing my conference to see exactly what I saw months ago.”

The conservative outcry, followed by inaction on ousting Johnson, has gotten under the skin of the Speaker’s allies, some of whom are challenging hard-line critics to “put up or shut up,” in the words of Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-Wis.).

“We got to call their bluff,” Van Orden said Thursday afternoon by phone. “And if they are not bluffing, and they want to vacate the Speakership, the American people are gonna see that these folks are not here to govern.

“They’re not serious legislators. They’re here showboating,” he added. “We don’t have room for that.”

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