Jan 18, 2024 - Politics & Policy

House Democrats weigh Mike Johnson's fate as discord roils GOP

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Speaker Mike Johnson. Photo: Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

As House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) stares down growing threats of removal from his rebellious right flank, Democrats are debating whether they would save him or or vote to oust him like they did former Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Why it matters: It would likely only take a handful of Democratic defections to rescue Johnson if one of the hardliners in his conference triggered a vote on ousting him.

Driving the news: Right-wing House Republicans are increasingly making noise about a possible motion to vacate against Johnson out of frustration over bipartisan deals and negotiations.

  • Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) told Axios she would "introduce the motion to vacate [against Johnson] myself" if the House passes an emergency spending package that includes aid to Ukraine.
  • Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.) told reporters the motion to vacate is "a good tool," adding, "If things continue to go the way that they're going, do I think that's a possible outcome? Absolutely."
  • Johnson said in a Fox News appearance last week: "I don't think I'm in any jeopardy of being vacated. It's not something I walk around and think about."

What they're saying: Some moderate Democrats told Axios there is less inclination to remove Johnson than there was with McCarthy.

  • One House Democrat said if Johnson "lives up to his deal" with Senate Democrats on spending, "I think you have a lot of Democrats protecting him who don't want to reward bad behavior from right-wing extremists."
  • Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) said he hopes Democrats are "more aggressive about preventing" a re-run of the three-week speaker vacancy in October: "It's bad for the institution, we didn't end up in a better place as Democrats, we just lost two weeks at home, and ... it scared the hell out of the country."
  • Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) said Johnson "hasn't been speaker long enough for us to have the same sort of misgivings" as with McCarthy, adding, "I don't know that you would see the same kind of wholesale [Democratic] buy-in to a motion to vacate."

Yes, but: That's similar to what many Democrats said in the lead-up to McCarthy's ouster – until he refused to seek a deal with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) or solicit Democrats' help in any way.

  • Many centrist Democrats say Johnson now faces a similar dynamic: "I told McCarthy, 'talk to Hakeem, some of us are willing to help out,'" said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). "Same thing with Johnson."
  • "They have to offer us something," Rep. Wiley Nickel (D-N.C.) told Axios, adding that he thinks it's "unlikely" they will.
  • A senior House Democrat said there has been "speculating" among members of Democratic leadership about a possible deal, but "not really talking about what kind of conditions" they may demand.

The intrigue: Even some Democrats who see a clear contrast between Johnson and McCarthy say the former still needs to prove himself a trustworthy governing partner.

  • "His constant shifts on issues to appease the extremists in his conference are starting to be reminiscent of the McCarthy days," said Wild. "I would suggest to him that if he wants any Dem support, he needs to show he has a spine and will stick to his word."

Between the lines: A general consensus among Democratic lawmakers is that Jeffries' word will likely once again prove close to gospel if it ultimately comes time to vote on a motion to vacate.

  • Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said he is "puzzled how some of our caucus members jump out and make public statements based on hypotheticals without realizing our strength ... is in our unity" and will "wait for Hakeem and our leadership to at least tell us what they recommend."
  • "We've got [213] people behind Hakeem's leadership every time, I see no reason to move from that," Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said, adding that he expects Jeffries would sound out the mood of the caucus beforehand.

The other side: Republican supporters of Johnson are skeptical he and Democrats would ever broker a deal to save his speakership.

  • "The Democrats like our chaos, so why would they want to balance it out," said one House Republican.
  • "I don't think there's going to be a bipartisan deal," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a leadership ally.
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