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Why Speaker Mike Johnson won’t let the House vote on security aid

Speaker Mike Johnson could let the House vote on a popular security aid package, but he's listening to those he fears most instead.

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Heading into February, House Speaker Mike Johnson likely thought he was already facing rather intense pressures. It’s safe to say the Louisiana Republican realizes how much worse things have become. NBC News reported:

The Senate’s big bipartisan vote Tuesday passing billions in aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan has turned up the heat on Speaker Mike Johnson and the House to do something to help some of America’s key allies. But Johnson, R-La., signaled he won’t bring the Senate-passed package to the floor unless it’s paired with strict border policies endorsed by House Republicans after he helped kill a version of the Senate bill that included border security and asylum provisions.

For now, let’s not dwell on the fact that the House speaker is demanding the one thing he recently rejected, as extraordinary as that may be. Instead let’s consider the scope of the pressure Johnson is under — and why he’s trying to ignore it.

Democrats, not surprisingly, are taking the lead on urging Congress’ top Republican to simply allow House members to vote on the Senate bill that passed with 70 bipartisan votes. House Democratic leaders are characterizing the bill as a matter of national security — which it is — while the Biden White House released a memo explaining that failing to pass the legislation would help, among others, Iran.

Democrats have also argued in the wake of the Senate vote that there’s more than enough support in the House to pass the bill — a point several GOP officials have conceded is true — if members would only be given an opportunity to do so.

But Democrats aren’t the only ones applying pressure. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of 22 GOP senators to support the security aid supplemental, also called on the House speaker to allow a vote on the issue. Around the same time, Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana effectively endorsed the White House line and said blocking the bill would help advance the interests of Russia, China, and Iran.

There’s even an international dimension to this story: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used social media to urge the GOP-led House to vote on the security aid package.

So why doesn’t Johnson simply allow the House to work its will? If members of his own conference are prepared to support the legislation, why not let members vote? On his first full day with the speaker’s gavel, the Republican told a national television audience, “We can’t allow Vladimir Putin to prevail in Ukraine.” Why not take this opportunity to prove that he meant what he said?

The answer almost certainly has to do with Johnson’s fear of his own members.

Let’s not forget that as recently as last month, several far-right members of Congress were sending unsubtle signals about their dissatisfaction with the speaker, fueling chatter about a possible vote to oust him. Punchbowl News reported that while it’s too early to say that the Louisiana Republican’s days are numbered, “there are knives out for the speaker already.”

Some GOP members went so far as to say that a motion to vacate the chair — the procedural step members use to fire a sitting House speaker — was “on the table.”

Johnson has no doubt heard the pressure from Democrats, senators, the White House, and U.S. allies abroad, but none of them have the power to take his gavel away. Right-wing House members, however, who are increasingly dogmatic about blocking aid to Ukraine, have that potential ability. Donald Trump, meanwhile, is also opposed to the aid package, and Johnson has coordinated his legislative efforts with the former president.

The House speaker, in other words, is listening to those he fears most.