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Why Mike Johnson’s perch has suddenly grown precarious

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To hear Mike Johnson tell it, he’s not having much fun as speaker. He has complained about the long hours and constant travel, according to those who have recently spoken to him, and a series of escalating internal clashes have made the job a joyless slog.

At least there’s this: Many of his colleagues don’t believe he’ll be doing it much longer.

Five months after replacing the deposed Kevin McCarthy, the Louisiana Republican now finds himself acutely vulnerable to a right-wing revolt of his own after governing in conjunction with Democrats, pushing through twin bipartisan spending packages and making way for a Ukraine funding vote later this month.

He’s currently facing a lone-wolf removal campaign from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — one that could easily grow legs if he miscalculates, insiders warn. And even if he does navigate through a rocky stretch ahead, they believe he is ill-suited to lead House Republicans into the next Congress and beyond — particularly if the GOP loses control of the House in November.

“What’s he going to say? ‘Oh, shucks, guys … I ran everything through suspension and lost the majority, and I still want to be your leader’?” one Republican member said. “That’s not going to be tolerated.”

With the House out for a two-week Easter recess, Johnson has been exploring ways to navigate the thorny issue of delivering Ukraine aid, which is overwhelmingly supported by Democrats but only about half of House Republicans, by most accounts.

Earlier this week, he floated a three-pronged plan to get Ukraine funding through the House, including structuring some of the assistance as a loan and including a reversal of President Joe Biden’s natural gas export permitting pause.

That has seemingly done little to quell the internal backlash, with Greene — Johnson’s chief antagonist — undertaking a mini media tour in recent days to slam his proposals and attack Johnson personally.

She told CNN the loan idea was a “heaping, steaming pile of bullshit” that is “insulting to the American people,” and reiterated that she would force a vote on Johnson’s removal should he move to pass Ukraine aid with Democratic support under suspension of the rules — as, we’re told, is Johnson’s current plan.

Greene went further in a Wednesday interview with Tucker Carlson: “This isn’t a Republican speaker we have right now; this is a Democrat speaker,” she said. “There is zero daylight between what Nancy Pelosi did … and what Mike Johnson is doing.”

Johnson is well aware of the threat hanging over his head, those around him say — and that he has a bunch of tricky items on his April to-do list that could further alienate various other corners of his conference, including an intra-party fight over surveillance laws.

There’s hope among the speaker’s allies, however, that the recent bipartisan spending legislation was the heavier lift with the GOP and that the rest will now more readily follow his lead. They’re also betting that Greene’s removal push, with its potential to throw the House into chaos in an election year, will prove too toxic for anyone to join her.

Others aren’t so sure. The previously quoted House Republican said Johnson miscalculated by not immediately forcing a vote on her motion for his removal right before the recess started last month. It would have “shown leadership and strength,” the member said, and “left a good number of people like me say[ing], ‘OK, this guy’s got some balls.’”

Now, the member continued, “every day that it gets kicked down the road, the chance of it happening becomes more real.”

It’s possible that a small group of Democrats could save Johnson by joining GOP loyalists in opposing a vote to oust Johnson. Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, for one, predicted as much last month, saying “a reasonable number” of Democrats would come to Johnson’s rescue under the right circumstances.

That scenario would create a trap for Johnson, however, infuriating the GOP base and prompting his critics on the right to mock him as the “Democrats’ speaker.” That, in turn, could pressure some Republicans who might not otherwise be inclined to support his removal into eventually endorsing it.

Some in the GOP say they could be more forgiving. The Republican member argued that the House is already being run as a “coalition government” because Johnson is passing most bills under suspension of the rules — a process that bypasses the House Rules Committee, where hard-liners hold effective veto power, but requires a two-thirds majority (and thus Democratic votes) on the floor.

But others insists such a situation would be untenable for Johnson.

“I can tell you this for sure: If there is a motion and Democrats jump in to support Johnson, that greatly diminishes him because then he’ll immediately become the ‘uniparty’ speaker,” said a senior House Republican aligned with Johnson. “Everything would be run on suspension because people would take down rules — or they’ll do continuous motions to vacate.”

Even if Johnson somehow manages to hold on through April, there are already whispers in House GOP circles that he won’t be long for the role of senior-most party leader much beyond that. Many Republicans privately concede that they’re unlikely to keep the House this fall. And if they don’t, there will be pressure on Johnson to step aside from leadership completely, as have GOP speakers who have lost the majority since the 1950s.

Johnson’s own groaning about the demands of the job in recent private conversations have only fueled the speculation, members say. Should there be a intraparty blowup in the coming weeks, members say, he’ll have some soul-searching to do.

Greene is hoping the moment might come ever sooner than that: “I’m planning to speak with him on Friday,” Greene told Carlson, “and I’m very much looking forward to that.”

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