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Moderate Democrats say they'd save Speaker Mike Johnson if the right tries to oust him

Conservatives have floated ousting Johnson over a bipartisan spending deal and Ukraine aid. His predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, was deposed by the same group of hard-liners.
Mike Johnson at the U.S. Capitol,
Mike Johnson at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 9, 2024. Anna Rose Layden / Reuters

WASHINGTON — A handful of moderate Democrats say they would be willing to save the new Republican House speaker, Mike Johnson, if hard-line conservatives move to oust him from power as they did his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy.

“Yes, we would back him,” said one senior moderate House Democrat who has been speaking with colleagues in his party.

“I probably would [support Johnson]. We can’t do another three-week standstill. As it is, we’ve got nothing done in the 118th Congress,” said another moderate Democratic lawmaker who is facing a tough re-election bid in November. “Look, he’s not my favorite person in the world, but on the other hand it’s a terrible and tough job in this Congress.”

“I would be very surprised if there aren’t a number of Democrats who would support Johnson” if conservatives try to force a vote to oust him as speaker “because I think we’re so tired of this,” the Democrat added. “As a ‘frontliner,’ I wouldn’t want to be accused by people of slowing things down.”

It’s the opposite approach to how Democrats handled the McCarthy situation last fall. After a closed-door debate on Oct. 3, all Democrats decided to join eight conservatives in a dramatic vote to oust McCarthy, R-Calif., from the speakership — the first time in history that House lawmakers had taken the step to remove a speaker in the middle of a congressional term.

The anonymous pledge of support from moderate Democrats means that Johnson’s speakership is on much firmer footing than previously known, despite fresh threats from far-right rabble-rousers furious over the $1.59 trillion top-line spending deal that the Louisiana Republican cut with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Both chambers of Congress need to pass something by the end of next week to avoid a government shutdown that would begin on Jan. 19 for some federal programs and on Feb. 2 for the remainder.

Since Johnson announced the bipartisan spending deal last weekend, some bomb-throwers in his party have threatened a motion to vacate — a tool that any one lawmaker can use to force a vote to depose a speaker. It’s an option “on the table,” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, a member of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, said on BlazeTV’s “The Steve Deace Show” on Tuesday.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who vehemently opposed McCarthy’s ouster, has also threatened to remove Johnson if he backs a potential Senate border deal that includes additional military aid for Ukraine.

“No more funding for Ukraine,” Greene said. “And that’s where I am completely different than the speaker and others in my conference. If he wants to give $60 billion in a deal with Democrats, trading America’s border security, then he’s going to find himself in deep trouble.”

In a meeting in the speaker’s office Thursday, Greene and other conservatives pressured Johnson to renege on his deal with Schumer. But a day later, Johnson bucked those critics and declared he was sticking with the deal.

“Our top-line agreement remains,” he told reporters Friday.

Pressed about the conservative threats earlier in the week, Johnson brushed them off, saying he was “not concerned” and that he too is a “hard-line conservative.”

“That’s what they used to call me. I come from that camp,” Johnson said.

Because of the GOP’s razor-thin majority, it’s unclear exactly how many Republicans might vote to remove Johnson roughly two and a half months after he filled the vacant speaker role. Freedom Caucus Chairman Bob Good of Virginia, one of the eight Republicans who voted out McCarthy last year, said it was a “ridiculous supposition” to think about removing Johnson after such a short time in power.

“Mike’s done great. You can trust him. And I have no criticism of Mike,” Freedom Caucus Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., who was part of the group that met with Johnson, said on Thursday. “They keep talking about this MTV,” or motion to vacate. “That’s not gonna happen.”

But if someone does force a vote on Johnson’s future and the number of GOP opponents is small, just a handful of Democrats would be able to rescue the relatively new speaker.

Before any such vote on a motion to vacate, Democrats would likely huddle behind closed doors to discuss their options, just as they did when McCarthy’s job was on the line. Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., said he would look to Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York before making any decision about Johnson, but added that he would be inclined to support the speaker to avoid more congressional dysfunction.

“I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the country or the House to have the chaos that’s going on right now,” Beyer said in an interview Friday just off the floor. “I hate the idea of him being thrown out by the Freedom Caucus because he’s willing to find the middle ground.”

“So, to have him thrown out again because he’s willing to work with us is a bad thing,” Beyer continued. “However, I’m also not going to wander off the reservation by myself.”

Before October’s motion to vacate vote against McCarthy, some Democrats signaled that they might be willing to save the California Republican in exchange for deep concessions, like a power-sharing agreement. But in the end, McCarthy never approached moderate Democrats and was forced out.

Centrist Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., who like Beyer is a member of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, said he doesn’t know how he’d vote on a motion to vacate at this time. But he said the rule that a single lawmaker can force a vote to oust a speaker needs to be eliminated.

“The rule that one person can call for the end of the speakership is ridiculous and we should change it,” Peters said in an interview. “If we go through this battle again, that should be part of the resolution.”

Other Democrats said they would not support Johnson under any circumstance, saying that they oppose his views on things like abortion, the separation of church and state and Jan. 6.

“I don’t know him. I’m told he’s a very nice person. ... None of that changes my view that if we have another vote for a speaker, I’m voting for Hakeem Jeffries,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. “I have no reservation, no doubt. I have great clarity about that.”