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Speaker Johnson’s only path to legislative salvation: House Democrats

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) faces a unique dilemma as he considers how to handle the proposed security package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

Johnson doesn’t need to find a way to the normal majority in the House — currently 216 out of the 431 members — but instead he needs to pull together legislation that will get nearly 290 votes, a supermajority of two-thirds.

That’s because his own Republicans have waged a war against the normal proceedings in the House, with a reactionary right-wing faction torpedoing the parliamentary process to govern debate and allow legislation to pass with a simple majority.

In their pursuit of ideological purity, these conservatives have repeatedly forced Johnson’s hand to make deals with Democrats. For must-pass legislation, Johnson uses a legislative calendar that brings bills to the floor that cannot be amended, get very little debate and need a two-thirds majority — which usually requires anywhere from 180 to 200 Democrats and another 80 to 100 Republicans.

Thus, these far-right Republicans have assured an anti-conservative outcome, over and over, leading to bills approved by the Senate’s Democratic majority and a dozen to two dozen mainstream Republicans.

All of which has left Johnson with very little negotiating room as he heads toward next month’s consideration of the security package, with the Senate having approved, with 70 votes, a $95 billion bloc of funds that makes none of the border and immigration changes the House GOP has been demanding for a year.

House Democrats are fully aware of the unusually powerful hand they have despite their minority status.

“Democrats have repeatedly made clear that we will find bipartisan common ground with our Republican colleagues on any issue, whenever and wherever possible, to take care of the business of the American people,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told reporters March 21 at a news conference.

The next day, on a bill to fund about 70 percent of federal agency budgets, Democrats provided 185 votes and Republicans 101, a handful more than needed to clear the two-thirds majority needed to pass the legislation.

“This is a Chuck Schumer, Democrat-controlled bill,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said during Friday’s debate.

That is true, as the legislation most closely resembled the version of funding bills that won approval last summer by the Senate Appropriations Committee and were supported by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

But Johnson’s options, given how Greene and other fringe Republicans block his moves, were to either shut down the government or pass the legislation with huge Democratic support.

He chose the latter option and used the so-called suspension calendar — previously reserved for noncontroversial bills, such as those that name post offices, to be considered on a fast track — and sent the legislation to the White House for President Biden’s signature.

More than 10 times in just five months as speaker, Johnson turned to the suspension calendar to pass important legislation that never before would have been considered in such a manner.

Five different bills funding the government and avoiding shutdowns won approval under this unusual technique, as did a couple that kept the Federal Aviation Administration’s authority going and another outlining annual policy provisions for the Pentagon.

When the bipartisan leaders of the House Ways and Means Committee cinched a tax package, including a generous extension of the child tax credit, a liberal priority, Johnson got just 169 votes from Republicans — about 120 short of the two-thirds majority needed.

But 188 Democrats backed the plan, sending it to the Senate, where it is now being considered.

As the House left town Friday for a long spring break, Johnson issued a statement suggesting that he wanted to work on a House version of the Senate’s $95 billion security bill.

“We welcome all ongoing member deliberations over the next two weeks as the House works its will on this matter,” Johnson said.

But Jeffries knows that it will be all but impossible for Johnson to craft anything that can pass the House — unless it has overwhelming support from Democrats, enough of whom so far have only been inclined to support the Schumer-led Senate bill.

In his Thursday news conference, Jeffries referenced how Democrats were on the verge of saving Johnson on the government funding outline, nodding to the idea that they would be needed again throughout the year, particularly if he wants to pass security legislation.

“We’ve repeatedly done it from the beginning of this Congress, and we’re prepared to do it once again,” he said.

Johnson might try to add to the Senate bill some conservative policy riders related to the border crisis or on energy policy. He might try to slash the amount of funds that go toward Ukraine, or to modify those dollars into a loan program that might be repaid.

But those options are extreme long shots, because each leader knows that far-right lawmakers who back ex-president Donald Trump will block the normal parliamentary path for approving whatever Johnson comes up with via simple majority.

Greene has already threatened to force a vote to eject Johnson as speaker if he puts legislation on the floor funding Ukraine — something she has called her own personal “red line” since early last year.

Jeffries knows that there are close to 200 Democrats and probably 100 Republicans, maybe a good bit more, willing to vote for the Senate’s security legislation — enough to clear the two-thirds majority hurdle if the speaker would just go that route.

So Jeffries can essentially dictate the outcome of anything that passes the House regarding Ukraine and the national security package, which includes money to shore up the defenses of Israel and Taiwan.

Johnson probably then faces a choice: Either allow the Senate bill to come to the floor for a vote, or sit back and watch as traditional security hawks from his own GOP caucus defect and sign a discharge petition, a legislative maneuver that if successful can bypass the majority’s leadership.

If 218 members sign such a petition on legislation, it would compel a vote. Democrats currently have 191 signatures to discharge the Senate bill to the floor.

It’s considered incredibly taboo to break from one’s party leadership to sign a petition, but the Ukraine military is running low on ammunition and there’s plenty of bipartisan appetite to reassure their defense lines.

Once a bill gets discharged, however, the actual vote would become a free vote and Republicans supporting it would probably not be considered traitors by some colleagues.

Either of those paths for the Senate bill to Biden’s desk — letting the bill win approval or getting steamrolled via discharge petition — might prompt Greene to try oust Johnson.

With the current standing of 218 Republicans and 213 Democrats, Greene would need just two other GOP rebels to defeat Johnson, or else he would need votes from Jeffries’ caucus to save him.

That offer has been made clear to Johnson — publicly so — that Democrats would provide votes to table the attempt to oust him as speaker.

But that offer only stands if the speaker allows the Senate bill to have a vote — not if Democrats and a dozen or so Republicans have to use the discharge petition.

“I have made the observation that I believe there are a reasonable number of members, if the Speaker were to do the right thing, that don’t believe that he should fall as a result of it,” Jeffries told CBS on March 10.

As it has been for months now, Johnson’s fate, on legislation and on his own standing, is very much in the hands of Democrats.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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