Apr 21, 2024 - Politics & Policy
Column / Behind the Curtain

Behind the Curtain: Speaker Johnson's historic road-to-Kyiv conversion

Speaker Johnson speaks at the Capitol after yesterday's historic votes

Speaker Johnson speaks at the Capitol after Saturday's historic votes. Photo: Drew Angerer/AFP via Getty Images

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) did something rarely, if ever, seen in the MAGA era when he won passage Saturday of a $95 billion foreign aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

  • He defied the loudest, most threatening GOP personalities, dug deep into government intelligence — and shifted his position on the most vital foreign policy legislation in years.

Why it matters: It's hard to overstate the importance of Johnson's road-to-Kyiv political conversion. He not only shifted his own position on funding and arming Ukraine, but defied a majority of his party to do it.

  • Oh, and he risked his speakership to pull it off.

The big picture: In an era of tribal politics and congressional dysfunction, the country witnessed a rare triumph of consequential bipartisanship. If you're a fan of both sides working together to do hard things, this was it.

  • The other three top congressional leaders — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) — pushed Johnson on how Russia would expand its war beyond Ukraine absent new weapons. Jeffries called it a "Churchill or Chamberlain moment."
  • President Biden's national security team, most importantly CIA Director Bill Burns, methodically walked Johnson through the damning intelligence.

Zoom in: The intelligence was so eye-opening to Johnson that he soon begged colleagues to go to the secure government chamber to see it themselves, the N.Y. Times reported.

  • Johnson, 52, a new leader with predictable early stumbles, didn't just roll over. He prayed. He then helped pull together a package of other national security imperatives, including funding Israel and banning TikTok, to help the medicine go down for his angriest party members.
  • Yes, this was messier and more time-consuming than necessary. But given the current dynamics among House Republicans, and where things stood a few short weeks ago, it's a wonder it happened at all.

The end result: Johnson passed the Ukraine bill with a majority of Republicans against it, but other parts with sweeping majorities.

  • Lost in the headlines over Ukraine: Funding for Israel and the Indo-Pacific + the TikTok ban passed by extraordinarily wide margins.
  • All these votes underscore how Jeffries, leader of House Dems, is an unsung hero in all of this — the only one to deliver majorities of his members on every bill. In many ways, he's Johnson's savior.

Zoom in: Focus on Ukraine for a minute, though. Republicans have a long history of never, ever allowing a vote on something most in the GOP opposed. So jamming this through was all the more stunning.

  • Some of the most powerful GOP committee chairs voted against Johnson on Ukraine.
  • The three House GOP chairs of the Biden impeachment inquiry — Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), James Comer (R-Ky.) and Jason Smith (R-Mo.) — all voted no.
  • So did Homeland Security Chair Mark Green (R-Tenn.) and GOP leadership member and Trump ally Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.).

The other side: Johnson is "a real Reagan Republican. It reminds me of Reagan's handling of Gorbachev," Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) told Axios.

The bottom line: This Congress has been a hot mess. Republicans have spent as much time firing or threatening to fire their leader as legislating. But this was an interruption of historic import. Ukraine will get its weapons, Israel its financial assistance and TikTok its reckoning.

  • And it still might cost Johnson his job.

Axios' Andrew Solender and Juliegrace Brufke contributed reporting.

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