Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is under pressure from conservatives and former President Trump to reject an emerging bipartisan border and Ukraine aid package even as he gets the squeeze from the Senate GOP and White House.
Republican senators in support of the deal argue that the leverage of Ukraine aid has given them a unique opportunity to secure key border reforms from a Democratic administration, but the former president, who Johnson says he has consulted, is urging him to reject any legislation that isn’t “perfect.”
The situation leaves little space to operate for the Speaker, who retains a historically slim House majority and is already dealing with rumblings about a move to oust him.
The Speaker emerged from a White House meeting with President Biden and congressional leaders Wednesday — which Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said appeared designed to “strong-arm” him into accepting the Senate deal — remaining highly critical of its reported contents and renewing his calls for Biden to take executive actions at the border.
“If the bill looks like some of the things that have been rumored, of course it’s dead in the House, because it wouldn’t solve the problem,” Johnson said Wednesday on CNN.
Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) talks to tourists in Statuary Hall of the Capitol on Thursday, January 18, 2024. The House will take up a continuing resolution to fund the government before the end of the day. (Greg Nash)
Yet Johnson did not completely shut the door on the deal, saying that he needs to wait to see the text of any bill and could not answer questions about a hypothetical.
As he faces pressure on multiple fronts, Johnson insisted on Fox News: “No one is strong-arming me.”
Many House Republicans are more than willing to rule out a border measure that does not go as far as their Secure the Border Act — a sweeping migration policy bill that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said would be dead on arrival in the upper chamber.
The Senate deal is expected to include changes to asylum policy, but negotiators have said that the issue of humanitarian parole is a major sticking point in the talks.
And in a presidential election year, some Republicans say a deal could neutralize a potent political issue for their party.
“The worst thing we could do is to give the appearance that we’ve done something on border security, to give the American people false hope and a false impression that we’ve done something that will make a difference,” Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), chair of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, said of the Senate border deal.
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Democrats and the Biden administration, Good later added, “want to look like they care about the border then run out the clock and hope that he wins reelection so they never have to implement what they’re not going to implement anyway.”
The most important of the border deal critics is Trump, who posted late Wednesday on his Truth Social website that he expects Johnson to “only make a deal that is PERFECT ON THE BORDER.”
Fox News host Laura Ingraham said Wednesday night that the former president is “extremely adamant” that the Speaker should be against the deal and that the president can take executive action on the border without “some new bill.”
“President Trump is not wrong,” Johnson responded. “He and I have been talking about this pretty frequently.”
Republicans supportive of the deal in the Senate hope that Johnson will shift, and they point to other issues on which the Speaker has made a move.
He ushered through a second short-term stopgap Thursday after previously expressing opposition to doing so in November, and he backtracked on plans to put two competing reforms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act on the House floor after conservatives expressed opposition.
Yet it is those changes, along with other legislative moves, that have caused subtle threats of a motion to vacate — a move to force a vote to oust the Speaker — to bubble up.
With several vacancies and expected absences, just a handful of GOP defections threatens not only any party-line legislation, but Johnson’s job.
“If things continue to go the way that they’re going, do I think that’s a possible outcome? Absolutely,” Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.), one of the eight Republicans who joined with Democrats to oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), said of a possible move to oust Johnson.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) also told reporters that she would make a motion to vacate Johnson herself if he pushed through Ukraine aid.
“If he funds $60 billion to fund a war in Ukraine to continue killing a whole generation of Ukrainian men, to continue a war that is a losing war … Yeah, I would introduce the motion to vacate myself,” Greene told reporters.
Johnson, for his part, said he is “not worried” about Greene’s threat to oust him.
But rejecting a Senate deal may be one of the few ways he has to build goodwill with the right flank.
In addition to rejecting calls from members of the Freedom Caucus last week to back out of a top-line spending deal with Democrats, Johnson also dismissed a last-minute pitch from the Freedom Caucus to bring up a vote on a border security amendment before passing a short-term stopgap funding bill Thursday.
The pitched amendment would have been a response, in part, to the Senate deal, but would have been a drastic change in plans just hours before the scheduled vote.
Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) said that after Johnson’s rejection, he is worried that the Speaker might accept the Senate border deal.
“We wanted it part of the spending. He just didn’t do it,” Norman said.
Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) is seen spin room following the NewsNation Republican Primary Debate at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday, December 6, 2023. (Greg Nash)
Not all of those in the House GOP, however, are against what seems to be emerging in the Senate, and they also see opportunity to use the White House’s desire for Ukraine aide as a leverage point.
“That would be the fear — that just like the Democrats should have regretted the deal that they could have cut 15 years ago, and they walked away — likewise, the Republicans are in a similar position here,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.).
McHenry dismissed arguments that passing the Senate border deal would nullify Republicans’ ability to campaign on border issues in 2024.
“Frankly, Democrats are not going to vote for a border wall. And that’s what the American people want. And that’s the ripest, most fruitful politics for a Republican nominee for president to campaign on. That’s going to be available,” McHenry said.