By passing Ukraine aid, the accidental speaker became an unlikely Churchill

Republican Speaker Mike Johnson showed political courage that is rare in Washington and notable legislative skill for an inexperienced leader in forcing a long-delayed $60 billion aid bill for Ukraine through the House of Representatives on Saturday.

Johnson put his own job in extreme peril to stand up for a democratic nation victimized by an unprovoked invasion by Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and to bolster America’s leadership of the West. His actions could save thousands of Ukrainian lives, even if Russia’s determination to win a bloody war in which it is targeting civilians shows no sign of fading.

Johnson’s support for the bill followed a period of self-examination and a political evolution that is also unusual in the hyperpolarized Capitol. One of his senior colleagues in the House said the “transformation” involved prayer by the devout Louisiana hardline conservative, who expressed a wish to be on the right side of history.

Johnson’s piloting of the bill through the House, after months of bitter infighting that split the GOP, saw him side with the diminished internationalist Ronald Reagan wing of his party while turning his back on the “America First” faction where he previously made his political home.

Johnson argued that without the United States continuing its arms and ammunition lifeline to Ukraine, Russia could score a victory that would prompt it to march deeper into Europe, drawing the US into another world war. He said a failure to act would bolster the emerging de facto axis of totalitarianism between Russia, Iran and China. Two other bills that Johnson shepherded through the House in a rare Saturday session will also send new aid to Israel and Taiwan, reinforcing other vital US national security goals in two other world hot spots. Johnson’s decisions also preserved and prolonged the central planks of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy less than seven months before he seeks reelection. Classified briefings by US covert agencies appear to have played a major role in his shift in thinking — another factor likely to anger “Make America Great Again” Republicans who view the intelligence community as a “deep state” that targets ex-President Donald Trump.

But Johnson argued the international situation is so grave that the House had no choice, warning that Russia, China and Iran are “a global threat to our prosperity and our security. Their advance threatens the free world, and it demands American leadership. (If) we turn our backs right now, the consequences could be devastating.”

Praise from Zelensky, but Johnson has severed his ties with MAGA Republicans

The significance of the remarkable events on a charged floor of the House was underscored by a message from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who had spent months warning he could lose the war if US help already worth tens of billions of dollars dried up. “I am grateful to the United States House of Representatives, both parties, and personally Speaker Mike Johnson for the decision that keeps history on the right track,” he wrote on his Telegram channel. “Democracy and freedom will always have global significance and will never fail as long as America helps to protect it.”

CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen reported from Ukraine on Saturday that US aid could quickly start funneling into the country — assuming the Senate signs off on the bill, as expected. Zelensky’s forces especially need anti-aircraft missiles and new air defense systems to counter growing Russian air superiority and an expanding assault on civilian and energy infrastructure targets. Ukrainian soldiers fighting in grim trench warfare conditions have meanwhile been rationing bullets and artillery. The House vote will also offer a vitally needed boost of morale as the vicious war has turned against Ukraine in recent months.

Johnson’s actions, however, represented a flagrant challenge to the populist base of the Republican Party, which is adamantly against more Ukraine aid; hews closer to Putin than Zelensky; and views America’s traditional leadership of the West as propping up globalist policies antithetical to US interests. This seam of opinion is hugely influential in the GOP and has been harnessed over the years by Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. And 112 Republicans — a majority of the conference — voted against the Ukraine bill. Millions of Americans share the ex-president’s worldview that America’s allies — who pleaded with Johnson not to abandon Ukraine — are freeloading off its defense umbrellas and that the US should take a much narrower view of its international obligations. They don’t believe that Ukraine is America’s fight and warn that standing up to Russia could lead to World War III.

Johnson is also increasingly vulnerable: In passing the Ukraine bill, he repudiated the demand of right-wing Republicans to use the aid as leverage to force the Biden administration to introduce hardline policies at the US-Mexico border. In this, however, he was undercut by his own side. The president had previously agreed to many of the GOP’s demands in the most conservative immigration bill in years — but Trump’s allies in the House killed the measure, apparently to deprive Biden of a win on an issue that the ex-president sees as his path back to the White House. That move — which deprived Johnson’s tiny majority of a significant policy win — taken together with the use of Democratic votes to pass Saturday’s Ukraine measure reflects the utter disarray in a Republican Party that is at war with itself. The optics turned even more perilous for Johnson when Democrats waved Ukrainian flags on the House floor, creating a scene that is already going viral among conservatives on social media and that the speaker was quick to condemn.

Johnson’s position is still far from safe

Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a vehement opponent of funding Ukraine’s war effort, warned after the vote that Johnson was a “lame duck,” though she did not trigger the vote on ousting him that she had threatened in an attempt to thwart the Ukraine bill. Greene slammed Johnson for funding what she called America’s “murder industry” by supporting foreign wars and warned, “It’s unbelievable. I’m thankful that America gets to see who this man is.”

The Georgia hardliner is one of at least three Republicans who have said they will support a move to oust Johnson — whose majority is so slim he cannot afford to lose any Republicans on a party-line vote and would likely need the support of Democrats to remain speaker.

Greene predicted fury among grassroots Republicans as lawmakers return home for a short recess after Johnson also worked to pass vital spending bills that funded the government — in what Greene says is a betrayal of GOP voters. She may be correct in her analysis, and a slow buildup of pressure may represent Johnson’s biggest vulnerability.

Still, there were also signs even among Republicans disappointed with Johnson of no appetite for another debacle that would likely unfold in seeking a new speaker so close to elections. If Johnson has correctly read the mood of those members, he may survive in a display of political dexterity that few observers expected to see after he was elevated to the speakership from the backbenches in October as almost the last resort after better-known figures failed to amass a majority after Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ouster. But his chances of staying in his post if the GOP wins in November still seem slim. Nevertheless, in passing aid to Israel and Ukraine, Johnson may have provided a service to vulnerable freshmen Republicans in swing districts whose victories in the 2022 midterms paved the way to their party’s control of the House. One of their number, Rep. Marc Molinaro of New York, told CNN’s Manu Raju that after speaking with his constituents, “It is clear to me that there are moments in time where we must do the right thing, and today we did that.”

Questions over Trump’s role

One intriguing question Saturday was the position of Trump — a longtime antagonist of Zelensky and mentor of Greene, whose pressure on Kyiv to investigate Biden caused Trump’s first impeachment. Johnson traveled to Mar-a-Lago to see Trump recently and bolstered the ex-president’s false claims of election fraud in an apparent bid to shore up his own position. The ex-president, who has long genuflected to Putin, stayed on the sidelines of the Ukraine debate. It remains unclear whether he was seeking to preserve his options in the event he is the next commander in chief and wants to follow through with his vow to end the war in Ukraine. Or perhaps Trump was preoccupied with his own political goals — and his first criminal trial ahead of opening arguments on Monday.

With the GOP in uproar following Saturday’s vote, Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries refused to say whether his party will back Johnson if Greene and her allies seek to unseat him with a maneuver known as a motion to vacate. Even if Democrats save Johnson as payback for the passage of the aid bills — a key Biden priority — a long-term effort to keep him in office seems unlikely. The speaker may be the most conservative person to hold the job in modern US history, and many Democrats disdain his efforts to promote Trump’s election-fraud falsehoods. And any Republican speaker propped up by Democrats might hemorrhage support among GOP lawmakers and be forced to resign.

There was, however, grudging support among some Democrats for the speaker. Rep Mike Quigley, who co-chairs the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, was asked whether he had new respect for Johnson. “I guess I do,” the Illinois Democrat said. “The old adage is ‘It’s never too late to do the right thing.’ We tested that,” Quigley added. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer praised both Johnson and Jeffries, saying, “I know it was a difficult road, but the House is on the right side of history for approving this bill.”

America’s enemies, including Putin, had been betting that US political divisions — exacerbated by past Russian election interference — would mean that the US would be unable to protect its traditional interests on the world stage. But Johnson put those assumptions on hold, even if the long-term prospects for continued US support for Ukraine and traditional leadership of the West look dim if Trump wins in November.

But House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, a Texas Republican who previously revealed Johnson had prayed for guidance, said the speaker showed true leadership. “He said, ‘I want to be on the right side of history.’ And I think he will be. And again, I think putting the nation above himself, it’s a real profile in courage, what he did.”

As the debate over Ukraine aid peaked, McCaul had drawn analogies between the US posture toward Putin and Britain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany under one prime minister and the stalwart resistance of his successor. “As we deliberate on this vote, you have to ask yourself this question: Am I Chamberlain or Churchill?” he said.

The accidental speaker makes an unlikely Churchill, but on Saturday he proved to be a far more daring and substantial figure than many of his Republican and Democratic critics previously believed.

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