12 min read

Johnson, Greene, and the Republican identity crisis

The chaos of the House Republican majority is representative of a party in transition.
Johnson, Greene, and the Republican identity crisis
House Speaker Mike Johnson posing in October for a selfie with Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has now launched an effort to oust him. (Greene’s office)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, April 17, 2024. Election Day is 202 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

It seems like every few months in the 118th Congress, it becomes necessary for me to inform you that the Republican-led House of Representatives has descended into disarray. Some classics of the genre:

Now, it’s that time again — and I’m running out of headlines. But the fundamental dynamics are the same as they’ve been for more than a year: The Republican speaker is planning to work with Democrats on major legislation, and a group of right-wing GOP members are threatening his job if he follows through. Here are the specifics this time:

After months of indecision, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) announced on Monday that he would move forward with a version of the bipartisan package sending aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, which the Senate approved in a 70-29 vote in February.

The math here is tricky: Many Republicans don’t want to fund Ukraine. Many Democrats don’t want to fund Israel.

So Johnson said that he would split the package into three separate bills, one for aid to each country, and then allow varying bipartisan coalitions to support each one in a series of votes this week. He also announced plans to vote on a fourth measure, which would combine the bipartisan bill to force a sale of TikTok, the bipartisan REPO Act (which converts seized Russian assets into money for Ukraine), a lend-lease program for Ukraine aid, and sanctions on Iran.

The problem: You may recall that, back in March, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) filed a resolution that would oust Johnson from the speakership, using the same “motion to vacate” process that was used to wrest the gavel from Kevin McCarthy. At the time, Greene didn’t take the added steps to force a vote on the motion, leaving it hanging over Johnson like the sword of Damocles. But she laid out two red lines that would lead her to trigger a vote on the speaker’s ouster:

  • Johnson holding a vote on a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) reauthorization bill without a warrant requirement, which he did last week.
  • Johnson holding a vote on a foreign aid bill without attaching H.R. 2, the Republican border security measure, which he plans to do this week.

On Tuesday, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) became the second House Republican (after Greene) to endorse efforts to oust Johnson. “It’s time for a new Speaker,” Greene wrote on X shortly thereafter, suggesting that she will spark a vote on the motion to vacate soon.

What happens now?

A lot will hinge on the details of Johnson’s three foreign aid bills.

I’ve been writing for weeks that Johnson’s public comments suggested that he was preparing for a deal with Democrats: I’ll give you a vote on Ukraine aid, you give me the votes to squash the motion to vacate. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) has repeatedly expressed openness to this arrangement.

Jeffries said Monday that Democrats’ vote on a motion to vacate will ultimately depend on the final text of the foreign aid bills. To name one potential sticking point, he told Axios that one of the bills must include the $9.2 billion in humanitarian aid for Gaza that was included in the Senate package. To name another, Johnson has signaled that he will allow amendment votes on the aid bills; if any overly partisan amendments, such as elements of H.R. 2, are added, the whole deal could fall apart.

As a general matter, though, several Democrats have said that they will vote to save Johnson if he allows Ukraine aid to pass. “Massie wants the world to burn, I won’t stand by and watch,” Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) wrote on X yesterday. “I have a bucket of water.”

Massie called on Johnson to preemptively resign Tuesday, which the speaker quickly ruled out. “I regard myself as a wartime speaker,” Johnson said. “In a literal sense, we are. I knew that when I took the gavel. I didn’t anticipate that this would be an easy path.”

It was unclear whether Johnson was referring to the wars in Israel and Ukraine — or the war inside the Republican Party.

To be clear, Johnson’s dilemma is partially the result of his majority’s tight margin (which will become even tighter when Mike Gallagher resigns on Friday). But it is also the natural product of a party in the midst of a slow-moving transformation.

The definition of “true” Republicanism is currently up for dispute, and both factions on the Hill are trying to claim that mantle. “I grew up with this construct of Ronald Reagan, and I tell my constituents: ‘What would Reagan do?’” House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Mike McCaul (R-TX), who has been a leading advocate for Ukraine aid, has said. “Well, he believed in leading the free world. He believed in a strong NATO.”

“If we can’t do something as simple and as obvious as protect democracy abroad, we don’t deserve the majority,” one GOP aide anonymously told Politico. “In one generation from the party of Reagan that defeated communism to the party of fucking stupid.”

On the other hand, there’s firebrands like Greene, who has taken to branding Johnson the “Deep State Speaker,” comparing him to Nancy Pelosi, and generally accusing him of abandoning the priorities of today’s Republican Party. When Johnson was elected speaker, Massie said on Tuesday, some Republicans worried the House would be rudderless. “But we have a rudder,” he continued acidly. “We’re steering everything toward what [Senate Democratic leader] Chuck Schumer wants.”

This chaos — all of this Congress’ chaos — symbolize and expose the cleavages that accompany a party in motion. Johnson’s moves this week may be in line with the party of Reagan, but they are decidedly antiquated in the party of Trump. In a CBS News poll this week, 61% of Republicans said the U.S. should not continue sending weapons and military aid to Ukraine. When Republicans were asked who they trust for information about the war between Ukraine and Russia, the most popular answer — offered by 79% of the party — was Trump himself. (Trump ran far ahead of “journalists in the war zone,” at 33%, and even dwarfed “conservative media,” at 56%.)

Johnson may live to fight another day, but if you’re wondering whether it’s him and McCaul who represent the future of the party, or Greene and Massie, you only have to look at the numbers. Johnson’s survival, after all, will likely be conditioned on Democrats coming to rescue him, a symbol in of itself.

Congressional chaos is often a sign of such intra-party charges.

The longest speakership election in history, the 133-ballot contest in 1854, came as the Whig Party was falling apart and lawmakers were trying to do something with the scraps. The anti-slavery coalition that emerged in that speakership race later morphed into the Republican Party.

The first motion to vacate to be filed against a speaker was in 1910, when progressive Republicans staged a revolt against the powerful Joe Cannon. The conservative Cannon kept his speakership, but was stripped of his Rules Committee chairmanship. The divide foreshadowed the GOP schism of 1912, when conservatives rallied behind William Howard Taft and progressives behind Theodore Roosevelt, eventually culminating in Roosevelt’s exit from the GOP and formation of his own Progressive Party (also known as the Bull Moose Party). Many TR-era progressives eventually became FDR-era Democrats, transforming the major party coalitions.

The 1960s and ’70s, another period of realignment between the two parties, similarly saw turmoil in the congressional ranks, as liberal Democrats pushed for significant reforms that diminished the power of southern conservatives, just as the latter was becoming a shrinking faction of the party.

Parties don’t die anymore, like the Whigs did. But they do evolve, as I wrote last week, like the Republicans of the 1910s and the Democrats of the 1960s, effectively creating new parties by way of swapping in and out key demographics. Battles over congressional leadership are often a key feature of such transformations, as a party’s lawmakers fight among themselves to set a new identity. The near-constant chaos of the McCarthy/Johnson-era GOP is best understood through that lens, as the natural identity crisis of a party in transition.

More news to know.

Justice Clarence Thomas was back on the bench Tuesday after a mysterious absence. (Agriculture Department)

⚖️ Seven jurors have been selected in The People of the State of New York v. Donald J. Trump, the former president’s first criminal trial. One of the selected jurors — a native of Ireland who “works in sales and enjoys the outdoors,” according to the New York Times — will serve as the foreperson, the presiding member of the jury. The remaining five jurors (and six alternates) will continue to be chosen when jury selection picks up again on Thursday.

During Tuesday’s proceedings, Trump was scolded by Judge Juan Merchan for audibly muttering while a juror was questioned about Facebook posts that potentially revealed political bias. “I won’t tolerate that,” Merchan said, instructing Trump’s lawyer to speak to his client. “I will not have any jurors intimidated in this courtroom.”

According to the Times, Trump looked “furious” after his lawyer gave him the “requested talking-to.” It was another example of Trump — who has operated for decades with few limits on his schedule or his commentary — learning the realities of life as a criminal defendant. At another point, like on Monday, Trump appeared to briefly fall asleep.

The trial’s second day also offered a glimpse of how Trump will balance standing trial and running for president. After court adjourned for the day, he made a campaign stop at a Harlem bodega where a clerk fatally stabbed an attacker in 2022. Alvin Bragg, the district attorney now prosecuting Trump, initially charged the clerk with second-degree murder but dropped the charges after backlash.

🇮🇱 U.S. officials expect the Israeli response to Iran’s aerial attack to be “limited in scope and most likely involve strikes against Iranian military forces and Iranian-backed proxies outside Iran,” per NBC News. President Biden has urged Israel to practice restraint in its response.

  • Related: “Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed frustration after the U.S. and its allies swooped in to defend Israel against a massive Iranian attack over the weekend, highlighting the limits of Western support for Kyiv.” (WSJ free link)

📝 Several Supreme Court justices seemed skeptical Tuesday of letting the Justice Department use an Enron-era obstruction statute to charge January 6th rioters. Summary of oral arguments ... My deep dive from yesterday’s newsletter

  • By the way: Justice Clarence Thomas was back at the court Tuesday after mysteriously missing Monday’s oral arguments. His absence went unexplained.

🔴 In another sign of Trump’s dominance in the changing GOP, many Republican candidates — even ones who were staunchly pro-life not long ago — have begun embracing his new, more tempered position on abortion.

🇨🇳 Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Chinese counterpart on Tuesday, the first extensive conversation between the two officials since November 2022. Reopening military-to-military communications was a key agreement inked at Biden’s meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping late last year.

💰 Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) is considering an interesting defense strategy in his upcoming corruption trial: blaming his own wife, who has also been charged with bribery.

🗳️ Maine joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact this week, after Gov. Janet Mills (D-ME) let a bill on the compact become law without her signature. States that join the compact agree that — if states with a combined total of 270 electoral votes join — they will award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote in every presidential election. With Maine’s addition, states totaling 209 electoral votes have joined; reaching the 270-vote threshold would require states with Republican-led legislatures to join.

🤝 The voting machine company Smartmatic has reached a settlement with One America News Network, the right-wing cable network, in its lawsuit over the broadcaster’s airing of false claims about Smartmatic machines being used to rig the 2020 election. Smartmatic’s lawsuits against Fox News and Newsmax continue.

The day ahead.

The House impeachment managers delivering the Mayorkas impeachment articles to the Senate yesterday. (C-SPAN screengrab)

All times Eastern.

President Biden will deliver remarks at the United Steelworkers union headquarters in Pittsburgh at 1:45 p.m. Biden will announce plans to ask his U.S. trade representative, Katherine Tai, to triple tariffs on some imports of steel and aluminum from China, from 7.5% to 25%.

The Senate will begin consideration of the articles of impeachment against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, which were formally delivered and read aloud yesterday. The chamber will convene as an impeachment trial at 1 p.m., before following carefully structured procedures from previous impeachments.

The trial will start with a live quorum, essentially calling roll. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the longest-serving sitting senator, will then swear in Senate president pro tempore Patty Murray (D-WA) as the trial’s presiding officer, and Murray will swear in her colleagues as impeachment jurors. (Chief justices only preside over presidential impeachment trials.) Each senator will also sign their oath in a formal book.

The Senate sergeant-at-arms will then proclaim: “Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye! All persons are commanded to keep silence, on pain of imprisonment, while the House of Representatives is exhibiting to the Senate of the United States the article of impeachment against Alejandro N. Mayorkas, Secretary of Homeland Security.”

From there, it’s unclear what will happen. At some point, Democrats are expected to offer a motion to dismiss the articles of impeachment without a full trial. However, they are currently negotiating with Republicans to allow for a few hours of debate before holding such a vote; no agreement has been reached yet.

Mayorkas is the first sitting Cabinet member in history to be impeached. He was charged by the House with breaching the public trust by lying to Congress about the border and failing to implement federal immigration laws.

The House is expected to vote on the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act, which would prohibit the federal government from obtaining Americans’ communications records from data brokers without a search warrant.

The chamber will also vote on three measures targeting Iran and its proxies: the Standing Against Houthi Aggression Act, the Iran Sanctions Relief Review Act, and a bill rescinding certain waivers and licenses relating to Iran.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Thornell v. Jones, an Arizona death penalty case.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump will have a break from his trial today (it doesn’t meet on Wednesdays), which he will use to meet with President Andrzej Duda of Poland at Trump Tower. It will be Trump’s latest in a string of recent meetings and calls with foreign leaders, including from Hungary, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.

Before I go...

Here’s an article I found fascinating: The late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) was widely mocked in 2006 when he referred to the internet as “a series of tubes.”

But he was... sort of right?

The Verge’s Josh Dzieza is out with an engrossing look at the undersea cables that quite literally power the internet — and how they’re fixed when disaster strikes.

“The world’s emails, TikToks, classified memos, bank transfers, satellite surveillance, and FaceTime calls travel on cables that are about as thin as a garden hose,” Dzieza writes. “There are about 800,000 miles of these skinny tubes crisscrossing the Earth’s oceans .... If, hypothetically, all these cables were to simultaneously break, modern civilization would cease to function. The financial system would immediately freeze. Currency trading would stop; stock exchanges would close.”

On average, The Verge reports, these cables rupture around every other day, about 200 times a year. Only around 1,000 people on 22 ships — using techniques borrowed from the Victorian era — are charged with repairing these all-important cables on which modern communications and finances rely. The piece includes a fascinating look at their lifestyle (ironically, the ships themselves have poor WiFi), the geopolitical consequences if the cables were to be tampered with (companies are routing new cables away from China), and their anonymity.

Here’s one more key passage:

 It’s a truism that people don’t think about infrastructure until it breaks, but they tend not to think about the fixing of it, either. In his 2014 essay, “Rethinking Repair,” professor of information science Steven Jackson argued that contemporary thinking about technology romanticizes moments of invention over the ongoing work of maintenance, though it is equally important to the deployment of functional technology in the world. There are few better examples than the subsea cable industry, which, for over a century, has been so effective at quickly fixing faults that the public has rarely had a chance to notice. Or as one industry veteran put it, “We are one of the best-kept secrets in the world, because things just work.” 

Read the piece here, via The Verge.

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