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Mike Johnson Suddenly Seems Ready to Stick a Shiv in MAGA

The House speaker is open to a stand-alone vote on Ukraine aid. Marjorie Taylor Greene isn’t going to like that one bit.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
House Speaker Mike Johnson

Poor Mike Johnson is in quite a bind. The House speaker simply doesn’t have a governing majority: It is borderline impossible to pass anything with only Republican votes, because the hard-right MAGA bloc wants to thwart governing at all costs. So he needs Democrats to pass anything that wouldn’t be uniformly awful for the country. Yet if he does rely on Democrats, that MAGA faction is prepared to depose him.

That’s why Johnson’s new indication that he’s considering holding a vote on a Ukraine aid package—one that would be separate from an Israel aid bill—is so intriguing and suggestive.

“I think it is a stand-alone, and I suspect it will need to be on suspension,” Johnson told Politico, meaning that a bill funding Ukraine aid would have to move via a fast-track procedure that prevents insurgents from bottling up bills in committees.

Passing this with Democratic votes, as would be necessary, would really shiv the MAGA faction. Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of that faction’s leaders, has raged at the prospect of Johnson allowing Ukraine aid to move forward. Donald Trump has urged Republicans to oppose it.

So how realistic is it that a stand-alone vote on Ukraine funding might actually happen? And why is Johnson saying this right now?

Let’s first point out that a lot depends on how Johnson structures such a measure. As Democratic Representative Brendan Boyle told me, the amount of funding will be essential to watch, as will the question of whether it’s really a clean vote.

“Is he really going to allow a straight up-or-down vote on the robust package that’s needed?” Boyle asked. “Or will there be a poison pill attached?” Still, Boyle said, the mere fact that Johnson has indicated this at all is a “positive step in the right direction.”

On that score, it’s worth noting that Johnson is in a brutal position right now. The MAGA noisemakers get all the attention, but a large bloc of House Republicans appears to want to vote for Ukraine aid, and many are influential in their own way. Boyle says Republicans have told him that a number of senior Republicans are pushing Johnson to hold this stand-alone vote, which is one reason why Boyle views a vote as “plausible.”

There’s also an important reason why some leading Republicans, especially committee chairs—and perhaps even Johnson himself—are more inclined toward voting on Ukraine aid than many of their more MAGA-inclined colleagues are. As GOP lobbyist Liam Donovan points out to me, committee chairs get briefed on intelligence—that is, the real inside dope—showing what will happen if Ukraine doesn’t get funding.

“Marjorie Taylor Greene isn’t privy to these things,” said Donovan. “The people who are shrieking the loudest about this are probably the least clued in.”

By contrast, Johnson “now has the benefit of these briefings, and he knows as much as anybody about the geopolitical dynamics here,” Donovan said. “That has to motivate him at some level.”

Johnson might also be feeling heat from what’s transpired in recent weeks: The Senate passed a mammoth bill last month that included $60 billion for Ukraine, $14 billion for Israel, and a host of border security measures that Republicans themselves had demanded. The House killed it on Trump’s command.

Meanwhile, various factions in the House—made up of Democrats alone or members of both parties—are advancing discharge petitions that would go around Johnson to force votes on Ukraine aid. That might be pressuring vulnerable Republicans in swing districts to get on board, but Johnson doesn’t want them to join with Democrats against his will, so a stand-alone vote might be emerging as a less-bad option to him.

All this points to an interesting paradox at play in this debate. Initially, Republicans sought to package Ukraine aid along with border security provisions because the idea was to give hard-right Republicans a way to support the former by sweetening it with the latter.

But Trump ordered Republicans to kill that compromise, because preventing constructive reform on immigration is much more critical to his presidential campaign than blocking Ukraine aid is. Donovan, the GOP lobbyist, points out that this might be why a stand-alone vote could now appeal to Johnson: MAGA diehards might ultimately be somewhat less opposed to Ukraine aid than to giving Democrats a win on the border, so they might let Johnson get away with the former as long as it’s not linked to a border deal.

“In the Republican zeitgeist, immigration is the single most visceral issue,” Donovan told me, making it a “much more fundamental red line” in the House GOP conference. By contrast, he said, many in the conference recognize that on the Russia-Ukraine war, “it’s important not to lose this fight.”

It’s probably a bad idea to get too hopeful about Johnson’s stated willingness to hold a stand-alone vote on Ukraine aid. The eagerness of GOP leaders to do the bidding of Trump and MAGA Republicans can’t be overstated, and if they object too loudly, Johnson might back off. But the mere fact that he’s signaling a readiness to shiv MAGA on this matter is striking, and bears watching.