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Democrats prepare to ride to Johnson’s rescue, gingerly

Speaker's job at risk over foreign aid package, though some backers seek to raise the bar for his removal

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., talks with reporters in the  Capitol on Thursday.
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., talks with reporters in the Capitol on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats hinted Thursday that they were committed to passing a foreign aid supplemental package even if it meant helping Republican leaders get past usually party-line procedural hurdles — and potentially helping a GOP speaker keep his gavel.

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., is moving to set up Saturday votes on three bills that would send aid to Ukraine, Israel and the Indo-Pacific. The measures would then be combined with a fourth bill comprising a hodgepodge of bipartisan priorities — many of which have previously passed the House — including sanctions on Russia and Iran and a modified version of a bill to force the sale of TikTok.

It’s unlikely Johnson has the Republican votes needed to adopt a rule that would provide for floor consideration of the four measures, given criticism from the party’s right flank. Democratic leadership has not explicitly committed to helping Johnson out on the rule, but said they would do what was needed to see the legislation across the finish line.

“We’re going to do what we’ve done throughout the entirety of the Congress, which is to make sure we take care of the business of the American people,” said Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. “We have consistently done that. No one has to ask whether we will shirk our responsibilities when every major piece of legislation that has passed during the 118th Congress has passed with a majority of Democrats and in many cases a minority of Republicans.”

Rules are typically seen as the responsibility of the majority party to adopt, but in rare cases the minority has backed a rule poised to fail when they want to see the underlying legislation pass. Democrats did so earlier this Congress with permission from their leadership when some voted to adopt the rule providing for the consideration of the law that suspended the debt ceiling.

[Foreign aid supplemental unveiled in House; Biden supports]

Many Democrats leaving a caucus meeting Thursday morning declined to say whether they would support the rule on the floor, saying they were waiting for instructions from their leadership.

Rep. Wiley Nickel, a moderate Democrat from North Carolina, said he would like to see the situation play out as it did with the debt ceiling. 

“I just personally think that’s the right way to do it,” Nickel said of the rule vote last June. “There’s plenty of Democrats who can vote for rules, but we want leadership to have a seat at the table to make sure we’re working together in a bipartisan way to get the right result for the American people.”

Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., who traveled to Ukraine with colleagues earlier this month, went further, saying he would do what was needed to get aid to the country passed. 

“It’s my intention to make sure that these bills pass regardless of how we handle it,” he said. “Procedurally, I can’t speak for other Democrats, but it’s my intention to get these bills across the finish line.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said the bills would not go down on Democrats’ watch. 

“Democrats will not be responsible for this bill failing,” she said when asked whether her colleagues would allow the rule to fall short. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who opposes the Israel aid bill, said Democrats “may very well be” stepping in to ensure the rule is adopted. 

Before the rule can come to the floor, it needs to be approved by the Rules Committee, which convened Thursday morning to tackle parameters for floor debate.

Opposition from conservatives on the panel could force Democrats to come to the Republican leadership’s aid to bring the rule to the floor. Committee member Ralph Norman, R-S.C., said he would vote against the rule because of the lack of action on a border security bill acceptable to House Republicans.

“Our only ask was to include a border bill,” Norman continued, “not a stand-alone which the Senate will sit on.”

Another GOP conservative on Rules, Chip Roy of Texas, also said he was opposed to the rule.

“We’ve literally done nothing but borrow money to fund conflict for the last 25 years,” Roy said. “That plus border equals problems with the rule.”

Motion to vacate

By bringing Ukraine aid to the floor, Johnson has put his own job in jeopardy. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., filed a motion to vacate the speakership earlier this month. 

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., also backs the motion, meaning Johnson may again have to turn to Democrats, this time to save his job.

Democrats on Thursday said the motion to vacate didn’t come up at their morning caucus meeting, but some hinted their party could help Johnson stay in his position.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., said Johnson had earned a lot of goodwill among Democrats by bringing up the Ukraine aid, in defiance of members of the speaker’s own party who wanted to see border security attached to any supplemental package. 

“If he brings up the Ukraine funding bill in good faith and without poison pills and does the right thing, there’ll be a lot of sentiment in the Democratic caucus, not to want to see him punished for doing the right thing,” said Schiff, the favorite to win his state’s open Senate seat in November. “But we’ll make that decision collectively, consulting with our leadership. But Democrats want this place to be governed and governable.”

Quigley said Democrats could skip a vote on the motion to vacate, lowering the threshold Johnson would need to win the support of the majority of voting members. 

“I think there are ways Democrats could help,” Quigley said of Johnson. “Who knows, maybe they’ll have an attendance problem.”

Johnson’s backers could offer a motion to table any Greene resolution, which could dispense with the matter quickly if enough Democrats join with Republicans, or simply skip the vote and bring down the majority threshold.

For her part, Greene wasn’t commenting on her plans or potential timing as she watched what played out in the Rules Committee on Thursday. She was responding to reports that GOP leaders may sneak a House rule change into the rule for floor debate on the supplemental, which would raise the threshold for triggering a motion to vacate from one to multiple members.

Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., said Thursday he was pushing for the rule change.

“I’m working with a group of members to change the rule so that they can’t get that done, so that one knucklehead can’t put the whole House into disarray by forcing another speaker vote,” Johnson said in a video posted to X, formerly Twitter.

If such a provision were included in the rule, Greene said, the speaker owed his conference a meeting to explain himself.

“If he attaches a rule to change the motion to vacate and uses Democrat votes on the Rules Committee, he’s going to prove exactly what I have been saying correct: he is the Democrat speaker,” she said.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., speaks to reporters about Speaker Mike Johnson following a vote at the Capitol on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

It wasn’t clear as of Thursday afternoon what the final rule would look like. After he was asked by Massie during the Rules meeting whether raising the motion-to-vacate threshold would be included, new Rules Chairman Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, said he didn’t know. “I don’t have any direct knowledge of that,” he said.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who triggered the earlier motion to vacate that ousted former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he wouldn’t support such a rule change unless paired with a ban on lawmakers’ ability to trade stocks.

Still, Gaetz said he wouldn’t back Greene’s motion at this time because of the potential for Jeffries to become speaker given so many vacancies and potential GOP defections.

Senate timing

The House is poised to consider the foreign aid packages as both chambers ready to leave for a weeklong recess in observance of Passover. With final House vote slated for Saturday, it’s unclear when the Senate would take up the four pieces of legislation, which will be combined into a single package before reaching the chamber. 

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., called the question of when the Senate would take up an expected House-passed security supplemental package “a Chuck Schumer question,” referring to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York.

“Passover is Monday. And so for a lot of our Jewish members that’s incredibly important to them not to be able to miss that,” he said. “We’re waiting on the House to be able to figure it out if they have a speaker on Saturday, and if they actually pass this on Saturday.”

Lankford said it is “100 percent possible” the Senate puts off floor work on the anticipated supplemental until Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, which is slated to be a recess week. 

John T. Bennett and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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