Apr 18, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Democrats’ case for saving Mike Johnson: He’s not McCarthy

Photo illustration of Speaker of the House Mike Johnson in front of a large photo of Speaker Emeritus Kevin McCarthy

Photo Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios. Photo: Kent Nishimura, NurPhoto/Getty Images

One reason will stand out if Democrats rescue House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) from an ouster attempt: He's not Kevin McCarthy.

Why it matters: Johnson has accrued credit with his colleagues across the aisle by pursuing a foreign aid package despite threats to his job for doing so.

  • "McCarthy was both incompetent and dishonest," said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), but "Johnson is just incompetent."
  • Johnson has been "courageous" in standing up to the "anti-government" wing of his conference, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Axios.
  • "Speaker McCarthy took the House majority from them and secured the largest deficit savings in history. Of course, they're happy he isn't there," McCarthy spokesperson Matt Sparks told Axios.

State of play: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a staunch opponent of Ukraine aid, is threatening to trigger a vote to oust the speaker if the $95 billion foreign aid package passes.

  • With Republicans' two-seat majority, Johnson will likely need Democrats' help to survive.

Zoom in: A clip of Johnson answering why he's willing to risk losing his job over Ukraine funding made the rounds among Democrats on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, according to several lawmakers.

  • "A number of my colleagues were sharing that because it's the first time he's said anything in support of Ukraine," said Rep. Wiley Nickel (D-N.C.).
  • Rep. Hillary Scholten (D-Mich.) told Axios: "I think his tone is a marked new direction. We haven't heard this kind of thing from him before."

Zoom out: Johnson's situation is almost a mirror image of what McCarthy faced last October, just before Democrats unanimously voted to oust him.

  • Democrats were whipped into a furor at a meeting before the vote by a CBS interview in which McCarthy accused Democrats of wanting to force a shutdown after relying on their help to fund the government.
  • It was a perfect encapsulation of everything Democrats hated about him: "McCarthy wasn't trusted because he never kept his word," Pelosi told Axios.

What they're saying: Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Johnson is "absolutely" in the right on foreign aid: "McCarthy was dishonest. [Johnson] has not been dishonest."

  • "I think his approach has been better than Kevin's. ... I take him at his word, he's doing the right thing," said Nickel.
  • "Every day that goes by, McCarthy looks worse and worse," said one House Democrat.

Between the lines: House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Whip Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) instructed Democrats at a closed-door meeting on Thursday to not commit to a vote on Johnson's ouster, according to multiple sources in the room.

  • "They don't want people [revealing their positions] either way ... to continue to give leadership the maximum leverage," said one lawmaker.

The bottom line: Some moderate Democratic lawmakers who would be among the most likely to save Johnson say he would need to do what McCarthy wouldn't — cut a deal.

  • "He's got to go to Democrats ... [and say] we 'ought to figure out a way to make this place work,'" said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.).
  • Nickel said Democrats should "have a seat at the table" and votes on "a lot of good bipartisan bills that we have."
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