Image Credits: Alex Brandon .

As a rule, I don’t write about procedural things happening in Congress that I don’t understand. But this next snippet from Punchbowl News fits into something I was planning on writing about anyway, which is the status and future of Speaker of the House Mike Johnson.

With Johnson getting hefty opposition from the House Freedom Caucus and other conservatives over the foreign aid package, the GOP leadership is discussing embedding language in the rule for debating the legislation that would raise the threshold needed to file motions to vacate. Under former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, only the party leaders could file such motions. McCarthy agreed to lower it to one member back in January 2023, which ultimately cost him his job.

Johnson hasn’t made a decision whether he’ll pursue this change, we’re told. But he’s getting pressed by scores of members to raise the threshold now.

This comes as Johnson’s multi-part effort to move the foreign aid package — which includes $61 billion for Ukraine and $26 billion for Israel and the Gaza war — was stuck on Wednesday night. The Ukraine funding is causing huge problems with conservatives.

Now, I definitely do understand why “scores of members” would press Johnson to change the rule that allows a single member to introduce a motion to remove his as Speaker. I doubt that forty or more members are personally talking to Johnson about the matter, but I take the point. The rule, which Kevin McCarthy acquiesced to, is paralyzing for any Speaker and rescinding it may be the only way Johnson can keep his job.

But the mechanics here are confusing. The idea floated by Punchbowl is that the change would be effected by passing language in the rule over the foreign aid package for Israel, Ukraine and the Far East. But that rule would have to pass, and that gets to another concession McCarthy made to win the Speakership. He allowed the far right to put three members on the Rules Committee, which is the precise amount needed to kill rules if all the Democrats are opposed. As a mater of practice, the minority party does not votes for the majority’s rules in committee or on the floor. As a result, this 3-member far right group has repeatedly succeeded in killing Johnson’s rules, forcing him to go to a backup plan. Johnson can suspend the rules and bring a bill to floor without the approval of the Rules Committee, but doing so changes the threshold for passage from a mere majority to a two-thirds majority. When Johnson does this, he has to rely on Democrats for passage, and sometimes a higher percentage of Democrats than Republicans wind up voting in favor of the bill. Needless to say, this is upsetting to many Republicans who believe they should set the agenda since they have the most members.

So, I am just not certain that Johnson actually can change the rule. To do so, he’d almost definitely need Democrats on the Rules Committee to vote with him, but they might not be inclined to do him the favor.

And this gets me to something I began talking about before McCarthy became Speaker, which is that the functional majority in Congress is the bloc that passes our spending bills and pays our bills on time, and it was clear after the results of the 2022 midterms that that majority would be bipartisan and made up of mostly Democrats. This has proved to be the case, which is why both McCarthy and Johnson had to pass all the urgent bills under suspension of the rules, and it’s also why they both ran into trouble with their own members. We now have a situation where we need this bipartisan mostly Democratic majority to pass the foreign aid package. There seems to be no way that Johnson can do this in the standard way of bringing a bill to his Rules Committee. The far right members won’t pass the rule because the bill funds Ukraine and because it doesn’t include a tough immigration component.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, consider that Johnson is trying to push a separate bill on immigration in an effort to mollify the far right, and how that’s going over.

But in signs of trouble late Wednesday, the House Rules Committee failed to approve the border security bill because three Republicans on the panel — Reps. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), and Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) — refused to support it, meaning the panel adjourned without action. Democrats have no interest in backing the GOP border proposal.

This is a bill that the far right is demanding, but they’re blocking it coming up for a vote because it’s not connected to the foreign aid bill and so the Senate could get its foreign aid without ever considering the separate border security bill.

Here’s a lengthier explanation from NPR:

The four bills related to foreign threats are being considered under one procedural “rule,” while the border bill will be considered under its own. Rep. Ralph Norman, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and the House Rules Committee, said that the arrangement would mean the border bill was “set up to fail.”

“With Ukraine funding in there, then it’s got a shot,” said Norman, R-S.C. “The thing [Democrats] want is Ukraine.”

Norman suggested he would oppose the rule for the aid package if it did not include the border security bill. Republican Reps. Chip Roy of Texas and Thomas Massie of Kentucky also sit on the Rules Committee and have spoken out against the plan. The three met with Speaker Johnson Wednesday to discuss their concerns.

Three Republican “No’s” in committee could defeat the motion before it even comes to the floor. If the legislation does make it past the committee to the floor, Johnson has almost no wiggle room within his razor-thin majority there.

Roy, who opposes Ukraine funding, said he would vote against the rule because “the border ‘vote’ in this package is a watered-down dangerous cover vote,” he wrote on social media.

So now we get to the heart of the matter. I argued back when McCarthy was struggling go gain the Speakership that it was pointless because he’d never be able to keep the job. He’d be ousted for governing as the head of a mostly Democratic functional majority, and that’s precisely what happened. Why not, I wrote repeatedly, just acknowledge up front who runs Congress and elect a bipartisan Speaker?

Of course, such an arrangement is anathema to both parties, and especially the party with the technical majority, so I correctly predicted it wouldn’t happen until every other option had been exhausted. I wrote the same when the Republicans spent three weeks trying to replace McCarthy before settling on Johnson. To his credit, Johnson has acknowledged his situation and hasn’t needlessly antagonized the Democrats he needs to function (excepting the stupid impeachment of Alexjando Mayorkas), and so the Dems are not so disinclined to rescue him from a motion to vacate.

But here’s the thing. John Boehner, Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy all faced internal threats to their leadership and all had the opportunity to survive by working with the Democrats as the leader of a bipartisan functional majority. Boehner and Ryan quit rather than make that choice, and McCarthy was ousted because he’d blown up any chance that the Dems might go for it.

The logic is pretty basic. While the Speaker of the House is elected by all members of the body, in practice he or she is still the leader of their own party. All the other leadership positions, like Majority Leader and Majority Whip, are elected only by members of the majority party. So the Speaker may be a different beast, but that’s not how the position is perceived. Can you be the Speaker and not be the leader of your party’s caucus in the House?

It’s never been done but Johnson is going to face that choice now. If he is going to survive, he’s going to need Democratic support, and if he gets it he is going to be not just indebted to them but absolutely reliant on them. There’s talk that some Democrats won’t make any demands beyond getting the foreign aid package passed, but even if that proves sufficient, it’s not sustainable for him. His own caucus will buck like crazy and he won’t be able to function as their leader.

All of this is the result of the basic functional majority math and has been baked in the cake since the 2022 midterms, and I predicted things would come to this. I really do think we’re nearing the point when all alternatives to a bipartisan Speaker have been exhausted. I predict Johnson will resign rather than get formally in bed with the Democrats, and then the GOP will not be able to replace him because any replacement would have to make unkeepable promises. Since the House cannot operate without a Speaker, we’ll either have some temporary Speaker as briefly happened in the interlude between McCarthy and Johnson, or some moderate Republicans will have to go to Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and make a deal on a Speaker acceptable to them both.

It’s what should have happened in January 2023, and as unthinkable as it was when I proposed it then, it’s much closer to reality now.

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