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A Democrat raised protecting Johnson as speaker in a meeting with Biden and congressional leaders

The president didn't engage with the suggestion in the moment, but it reflects a growing question among Democrats about what to do if the right tries to depose the new speaker.
Mike Johnson, Mike Turner, Mike Rogers, and Mike McCaul.
Speaker Mike Johnson faces threats to his job from the right over Ukraine aid and a spending deal.Samuel Corum / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — During a meeting between President Joe Biden and congressional leaders focused on Ukraine aid and border security last week, a Democratic lawmaker raised the issue of how to “protect” Republican Speaker Mike Johnson if conservative hard-liners try to oust him from power, two sources in the room told NBC News.

“Johnson is in a precarious position and [we] should figure out how to protect the guy,” Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, told attendees, according to one of the sources.

A second lawmaker in the room confirmed that the issue of protecting Johnson was raised in the meeting but said there was not a broader discussion about it among those in the room.

Himes’ remarks came toward the end of the hour-and-20-minute-long closed-door meeting in the White House’s Cabinet Room, as Biden allowed each of the leaders seated around the table a few minutes to speak. Himes told the group he’s never been in a negotiation where everyone agreed — referring to the need for both Ukraine aid and border security — then brought up the issue of shielding the new speaker. 

The source said they could not see Biden’s reaction in that moment but said that House Intelligence Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, turned to Himes, seated next to him, and thanked him for making the remarks. Johnson did not have any reaction to Himes, the source added.

The revelation that Himes broached the subject of rescuing Johnson in front of the speaker, the president and top congressional leaders from both parties suggests that Democrats are increasingly considering how they will respond if conservatives move to depose Johnson like they did last fall to his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy — particularly after Johnson bucked his far-right members to prevent a shutdown this month and has yet to fully close the door to a bipartisan deal on Ukraine aid and immigration policy changes.

A Biden official said the White House has not and will not insert itself in hypothetical discussions like a motion to vacate, the tool that allows a single House member to force a vote to oust the speaker, and would defer to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y, who also attended the private meeting.

Spokespeople for Jeffries, Himes and Turner had no comment for this article.

A Johnson spokesman said in a statement: “The motion to vacate does not factor into how the Speaker leads the House. He is fully committed to working openly and transparently with every member.”

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., has already personally warned Johnson that she will file a privileged motion to vacate the speaker’s office if he puts a package on the House floor that includes critical aid for Ukraine — a top priority for Biden and Russia hawks in both parties on Capitol Hill. Others on the right are furious at Johnson for cutting a top-line spending deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., at the start of the year and have said that a motion to vacate is a tool that should be kept on the table.

Last October, House Democrats debated whether to step in and save McCarthy from a far-right rebellion, but they ultimately decided to all stick together and join eight GOP bomb-throwers in overthrowing McCarthy.

The outcome of a second coup attempt in mere months could be different. Several moderate House Democrats told NBC News this month they would be willing to vote to rescue Johnson if Greene or another Johnson foe forces a motion to vacate. The moderates said they would not issue conditions to Johnson for their support but would want him to uphold the bipartisan top-line spending deal and avert a government shutdown.

“If Johnson sticks to his guns and to the agreement he made, I think many of us would vote down a motion to vacate,” said one key moderate House Democrat.

During another point in the Jan. 17 White House meeting, Rep. Adam Smith, of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said he was glad Johnson appears open to a bipartisan compromise product, according to a source familiar with discussions.

But Smith warned that legislation that swings further in the direction of hard-liners, such as the House Republicans’ partisan border security bill known as H.R. 2, would sink any potential deal.

As with Himes’ remarks, Johnson did not react to what Smith had to say in the moment, according to the source.

The trio negotiating the border bill in the upper chamber, Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., James Lankford, R-Okla., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., received backing both publicly and privately from leadership over the last few weeks, though the deal is currently held up due to opposition from Senate hard-liners.

Even in the meeting with the president, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., advocated forcefully for the yet-to-be-revealed border deal that would unlock funds for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, according to two sources with knowledge of his remarks.

It’s rare for McConnell to insert himself into the machinations of the House, having refrained from doing so numerous times under then-Speaker McCarthy. Yet McConnell and other members of his leadership team, faced with the prospect that Ukraine may never receive critical munitions and lethal assistance from its biggest ally, the U.S., has decided to take a more assertive approach.

“I’m not in the business of advising the speaker of the House how to pass legislation,” the Republican leader told the room, referring to Johnson, who was seated several inches away. “But if the Republicans controlled the House, the Senate and the White House, they would not get a border deal.”

McConnell’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Just a week later, McConnell, in a private meeting with rank-and-file Republicans on Wednesday, cast doubt about the prospects of the emerging bipartisan border deal, sending the chamber into chaos. McConnell suggested that linking border provisions with Ukraine aid could tank funding for the war-torn country — though House Republicans had demanded that the two issues be paired.

It’s an idea Democrats in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and progressive lawmakers who were left out of border negotiations, have also raised, frustrated by the prospect of having to vote against foreign aid they support because of changes to immigration policy they oppose.

"This has been anything but an open and transparent process,” one of the lawmakers, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NBC News. “Which is extremely frustrating. Why are we even here? In terms of having this conversation, in a subject area as complex as border security and immigration policy tied to support for Ukraine, which has significant bipartisan support already.”

The Biden administration publicly stood by its decision to ask Congress to approve funding for causes overseas alongside additional money for the southwest border. 

When pressed by NBC News last week if the administration had any regrets about linking the items, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre replied: “No, not at all. Both of those things are important to the president. They are an emergency request. That’s why they — [Biden] included it in the supplemental, and we believe all of it needs to move forward.”

Privately, the White House does not believe it could have achieved Ukraine aid without border security, and vice versa, according to a senior administration official.

"We have a moment right now where congressional leaders need to understand you should not fear the deal," House Financial Services Chairman Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., who served as interim speaker after McCarthy, said Thursday during an appearance on CNBC's "Squawk Box."

"You should get as much good in public policy as your time gets without fear of repercussions."