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Speaker Mike Johnson Faces Threat of Ouster from Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene
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By Associated Press
Published 1 month ago on
March 22, 2024

Speaker Mike Johnson's leadership is under threat as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene files a motion to vacate. (AP/File)

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WASHINGTON — Speaker Mike Johnson is at risk of being ousted after hard-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene filed a motion to vacate Friday, his leadership abruptly challenged in the middle of a House vote on a $1.2 trillion package to keep the government open.

It’s the same political dynamic that removed the last Republican speaker, Kevin McCarthy, just five months ago when far-right conservatives revolted over his compromise with Democrats to prevent a federal shutdown. But this one faces steeper odds, with less public GOP support, at the moment.

Threat to Johnson’s Leadership

As the House left town for a two-week spring recess, with no imminent vote scheduled on removing the speaker, the punishing threat hangs over Johnson, of Louisiana, as the far-right flank once again seizes on the tactic, a disruptive tool used to make demands and leverage their own priorities.

“We’ve started the clock to start the process to elect a new speaker,” the Georgia congresswoman said on the Capitol steps.

Greene, a leading ally of the Republicans’ presumed 2024 presidential nominee, former President Donald Trump, declined to put a timetable on her next move, but said she was issuing a “warning” to Johnson for the weeks ahead.

Impact on House GOP

Whether the Republicans march forward with plans to be rid of another House speaker, the upshot is clear: The House GOP is operating as a majority in name only, the speaker unable to deliver Republican votes, particularly on the core issue of government funding, and forced into what used to be acceptable compromises with Democrats.

Time and again, it is Democrats in this session of Congress who have delivered the tally needed to carry on with the basics of governing — as seen in Friday’s 286-134 vote to prevent a midnight shutdown. More than half the House Republicans voted no.

While conservative Republicans routinely demand steep spending cuts, willing to shut down government to make changes, their own colleagues reject that approach, and the big reductions in government programs and services that are important to constituents back home.

In fact, the $1.2 trillion package approved Friday was the final component of the deal McCarthy negotiated with President Joe Biden a year ago in a compromise with Democrats, and that ultimately led to his downfall as speaker — and now threatens Johnson.

Johnson’s Response and Future

The day’s turn of events leaves Johnson’s leadership teetering — particularly as he moves next to a Ukraine funding package that far-right Republicans oppose.

Johnson brushed off the threat of removal heading into Friday’s vote.

“I don’t operate from fear,” he said.

No speaker had been removed this way until McCarthy’s dramatic ouster last fall, a swift, stunning and chaotic episode that essentially shuttered the House chamber for weeks as Republicans searched for a new speaker.

Many Republicans in Congress were embarrassed by the spectacle of McCarthy’s removal as speaker, which exposed deep party divisions and infighting that left their new majority, in office since January, unable to fully function on priorities.

Others showed little interest in signing on to Greene’s motion against Johnson.

Rep. Clay Higgins, an ultraconservative Republican from Louisiana, posted a video calling Greene a friend but saying, “Marjorie has made a big mistake.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday she was not going to address what’s happening with the House leadership.

“Get your popcorn, sit tight and watch what’s happening” she said.

Political Implications

With the most narrow majority in modern times, Johnson has a weak grasp on his Republicans in the House. He can risk only a few defectors on any vote, meaning he could be easily ousted unless Democrats jump in with their votes to help him.

Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, the Trump ally who engineered the ouster of McCarthy by a similar contingent of far-right Republicans, warned against trying to oust Johnson for fear of ending up with a Democratic speaker.

Gaetz was among eight Republicans who voted last October to remove McCarthy of California, with the help of all Democrats who were not willing to cast votes to save the embattled speaker.

That may be different this time, and Republican lawmakers fed up with the process would cross the aisle and vote for the Democratic leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York. Or Democrats could cast their own votes to save Johnson.

“If we vacated this speaker, we’d end up with a Democrat,” Gaetz predicted late Thursday. “When I vacated the last one, I made a promise to the country that we would not end up with a Democrat speaker. … I couldn’t make that promise again today.”

The idea of a Republican House majority casting votes to make a Democrat the House speaker would be an unheard-of political situation.

But with Republicans at war among themselves it is also one that could potentially transpire as they try to return Congress to a sense of normalcy.

Changes in the House

The House Republican majority shrank further Friday, as Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, who had already announced his retirement, said he would leave next month, following a wave of GOP lawmakers heading for the exits.

Another key Republican, Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, announced she would leave her perch as chair of powerful Appropriations Committee but remain in Congress, after having led the funding package to House passage.

Before filing her motion to remove the speaker, Greene spoke vehemently against House passage of the government funding bill, and she has warned she would try to remove the speaker if he pushes ahead with a package to support Ukraine as it battles Russia’s invasion.

Johnson has refused to put a $95 billion Senate-passed national security package with Ukraine funds to a House vote, but nevertheless he promised to fund Ukraine as a next priority. The removal threat against him now puts any votes to help Ukraine in potential jeopardy.

Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., a top McCarthy lieutenant who helped negotiate the budget deal now on its way to becoming law, said he believes over time it will show that compromise on budget matters is how it’s done.

“It shows that the McCarthy debt ceiling agreement is durable,” he said.

Democrats wanted more spending, Republicans wanted less, and they landed in the middle.

“In time, this will be viewed as a legislative success,” he said, “and the high point of a very broken and divided Congress.”

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