May 2, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Democrats warn Mike Johnson: Don't get used to us saving you

Illustration of a lifesaver ring attached to a rope which is fraying and about to break.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

House Democrats are cautioning their patience for continually saving House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is not limitless — and, for some, it's already starting to wear thin.

Why it matters: Johnson is about to get another bailout next week as Democrats vow to kill a motion to vacate introduced by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).

  • But some Democrats are starting to question the unconditional rescues: "Let's see some real [concessions]. Why do we just bail him out?" said one.
  • House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) is "very, very good at this," the lawmaker said, but "none of us have yet seen any tangible evidence of deal-making, and that's what we want to see."

What we're hearing: The debate over whether to try to extract concessions from Johnson, and former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) before him, has raged among Democrats throughout this Congress.

  • Even as Democrats coalesced around saving Johnson at a closed-door meeting on Tuesday, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) argued they shouldn't be "cheap dates" going forward, multiple sources told Axios.
  • That phrase has come to personify an emerging stance: "There's definitely growing pressure to use the leverage we obviously have ... people want to make sure that we're not going to be a cheap date," Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) reiterated Wednesday.
  • "I think that if we're going to save a speaker, we should get something for it," said Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).

What we're hearing: The desire for concessions is no longer confined to just the progressive wing of the party.

  • One House Democrat told Axios "the tenor of some of the conversation the other day in caucus, and not always from the pockets you would imagine … [was]: this is not our role forevermore, to help this man."
  • "Folks are already voicing that frustration," centrist Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio) told Axios.

Zoom out: Democrats have routinely bit their tongues and covered GOP shortfalls on bills to fund the government, raise the debt ceiling and provide aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

  • "This is the conundrum that we've been in from day one with this ridiculous [GOP] conference — they can't actually get anything done without us, we have saved them multiple times just for basic functioning of government," said Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.).

The other side: Some moderate and swing-district Democrats want to keep giving Johnson breathing room and disempowering his rebellious right flank.

  • "We're going take one day at a time, but, at this point, those of us who are adults in the room are going to step forward and help run the country," Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) told Axios.
  • Landsman said saving Johnson on the motion to vacate is "the right decision so that we can continue to govern."

Zoom in: Jeffries commands the overwhelming loyalty of his caucus, and few members expect an internal revolt over the issue.

  • "He has built up a lot of trust, and so that trust is giving him some leeway here," said Landsman.
  • Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) told Axios: "Leader Jeffries has been a Jedi ... I think the Leader is just like, 'We've got work to do. Let's do the work.'"

What to watch: Multiple House Democrats said their understanding of Jeffries' public commitment to saving Johnson is that it applies only to next week, not necessarily in perpetuity.

  • "This is a very specific instance because of the [foreign aid] package," Jayapal said.
  • Raskin told Axios: "It's one pony ride only. He did the obviously right thing in bringing the aid package to the floor."

The bottom line: "It remains to be seen whether Johnson recognizes the reality that he has to govern in a bipartisan fashion," one senior House Democrat told Axios.

  • "The next move is his."
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