Feb 29, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Mike Johnson faces pivotal test with House Democrats

House Speaker Mike Johnson, seen through a silhouette, wearing a blue suit jacket and glasses, speaks to reporters in the Capitol's studio A flanked by fellow House Republicans.

House Speaker Mike Johnson. Photo: Drew Angerer/AFP via Getty Images

House Democrats are carefully watching how House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) handles spending votes next week as they consider their willingness to save his speakership.

Why it matters: As Johnson faces growing anger from his right flank for working with Democrats, the prospect of an ouster attempt looms large.

What's happening: The House is set to vote next week on a half dozen annual appropriations bills that — to the ire of right-wingers — have minimal spending cuts and no conservative policy riders.

  • The bills are likely to be voted on under a process that requires a two-thirds majority — meaning they will need many Democratic votes but can't be blocked by Johnson's right flank.
  • To some Democrats, finally passing these bills would be a big feather in Johnson's cap. "I think people will give him credit for doing the right thing," said former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
  • "If this process goes well next week and the 22nd … I'm willing to give it a shot," said New Democrat Coalition Chair Annie Kuster (D-N.H.).

Zoom in: Several Democrats told Axios they are generally disinclined to vote to remove Johnson — especially in retaliation for keeping the government funded or passing Ukraine aid.

  • "I don't think he should be punished for doing the right thing," Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.) told Axios, stating firmly he would vote against removal.
  • Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) told Axios: "I am not going to let [right-wing Rep.] Marjorie Taylor Greene vacate any speaker."
  • "I don't want to go through another speaker fight ... If he wants to do his job, I would like to support that," said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.).

Yes, but: That's similar to what Democrats said about former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) before they unanimously voted to oust him in October.

  • A key factor in Democrats' decision then was McCarthy's eleventh-hour swiping at them for helping pass a measure to avoid a government shutdown.
  • Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) said he thinks Johnson is safe as long as he "doesn't repeat the mistakes that McCarthy made of punching Democrats in the face when we carried the water."

The other side: Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) said Johnson "has lost a lot of goodwill" recently due to an "inability to communicate" and "lack of leadership."

  • Others said the spending bills are a floor, not a ceiling. "We've reached a low point when we celebrate what is supposed to happen with annual regularity," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.).
  • Several House Democrats also said they will ultimately defer to Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) when push comes to shove.

The bottom line: Jeffries, for his part, is staying characteristically circumspect on what he would do.

  • "We're looking at a bipartisan bill to keep the government open. That's our responsibility and that's our job," he told Axios.
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