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Why Johnson is stuck with threats to end his speakership

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Speaker Mike Johnson will likely escape Marjorie Taylor Greene’s first attempt to fire him. The threat of an ouster vote will still haunt him all year long.

Despite near-universal consensus in the House that allowing any one member to force a snap vote on booting a speaker is a recipe for chaos, lawmakers in both parties are increasingly acknowledging that they have almost no chance of changing that rule before January.

It’s not for a lack of interest — in fact, the idea was brought up in GOP meetings as recently as this week. But Johnson is boxed in from both sides. He can’t change the rules with only Republican votes because of the rebels on his right flank, who insisted that former Speaker Kevin McCarthy empower them by allowing a single lawmaker to force a vote of no confidence.

And Democrats, while they’re ready to save him from Greene’s (R-Ga.) first ejection attempt next week, are clear that their mercy won’t necessarily be permanent if the Georgia firebrand, or someone else, tries again. They also have little political incentive to give Johnson more permanent protection, unless he opens up broader negotiations about potential power sharing in the House. That price is too steep for the speaker to pay.

“I don’t know how you put that genie back in the box,” Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) said about changing the so-called motion to vacate the speakership, which he supports overhauling, this year.

It leaves Johnson almost powerless to officially defang one of the biggest threats to his leadership — even as he’s criticized the low threshold to vote on ousting a speaker as having “harmed this office” and the majority — and opens the door for more disgruntled colleagues to try to force a showdown with him in the months to come.

Not to mention that most Republicans doubt that Johnson or Democrats have much to gain by picking a fight over changing the rule. With a little over six months left before the next round of leadership races, a growing number of Republicans are already predicting that Johnson wouldn’t win the top spot again if he runs. Trying to protect the speakership from his disgruntled hardliners only invites more of them to lash out, making the speaker’s future path to stay in leadership even tougher.

“There would be too much pushback” if Johnson tried to raise the threshold for forcing a referendum on him, Rep. Andy Ogles (R-Tenn.) said, advising Republicans to focus until Election Day on issues like the border rather than the “distraction” of a rules change fight.

“November is around the corner,” he added. “The opportunity to revisit the rules as a whole is right around the corner.”

The internal backlash over a potential change to speaker-deposing rules is already hitting Johnson, thanks to preemptive threats from some conservatives that they’d side with Greene in favor of firing him if he pursues such a change. Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) in particular both warned Johnson late last month that they could support an ouster if he attempted to reform the motion to vacate.

The Louisianian wants none of that drama heading into November, as he tries to keep the conference interested in legislation that unites Republicans and gives them tools to win battleground races that are critical to his chances of keeping the majority.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are already planning to make it harder to fire a speaker if they win back the House in January. Until then, they see the onus as on Republicans to come forward with an offer to fix a GOP-created problem. Plus, Democrats can identify the political reality: More GOP chaos on display can only help them on the campaign trail.

“I’m not a cheap date. … It’s not our job to bail out the Republicans every time they want to overthrow their speaker,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). He made clear that deal-making would be necessary for multiple Johnson salvage votes, adding that “if it gets to that point, that’s a discussion he and Hakeem [Jeffries] have to have.”

McGovern’s not the only progressive grousing about the lifeline Democrats are providing to Johnson, whose conservatism makes him the caucus’ natural ideological enemy. Many of them are not in much of a mood to lift Republicans out of future predicaments, either.

“I would see that as another move to help Mike Johnson, who supported overturning the election and has been an apologist for crazy right-wing ideas in the country,” Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas) said of changing the rules for a speaker-ousting vote.

Democrats have already laid out an outline for the kind of power-sharing they might seek with the GOP in exchange for more durable support for Johnson. In an op-ed last year, Jeffries wrote broadly that “the House should be restructured to promote governance by consensus and facilitate up-or-down votes on bills that have strong bipartisan support,” including rules changes that “reflect the inescapable reality that Republicans are reliant on Democratic support to do the basic work of governing.”

Last fall, a bipartisan coalition tried to reach a deal that would have prevented McCarthy’s ouster in exchange for adjusting the partisan makeup of the powerful Rules Committee, which controls what bills go to the floor, and raising the motion to vacate threshold. Those talks ultimately unraveled.

But as Greene’s threat looms, Republicans have increasingly floated the idea of a rules change in private meetings — including with Johnson. The speaker said in a post on X last month that he had been encouraged to endorse a higher threshold for the motion but that the idea didn’t have a “majority of the full House.”

The idea is still coming up, though, including during a lunch for governing-minded Republicans, according to one member present. Separately, Republicans in the business-oriented Main Street Caucus privately urged Johnson to change the rule as soon as possible during a recent meeting, per two Republicans who attended that sitdown.

One of those Republicans, Rep. Kelly Armstrong (N.D.), characterized his pitch to Johnson during the Main Street meeting as: “I don’t know how you can have a one-vote motion to vacate when you have a one-vote majority.”

To help distance Johnson from the horse-trading involved in a rules change proposal, any such blueprint that might be crafted would likely come from rank-and-file members, not party leaders. But many of Johnson’s allies acknowledge that if Democrats pile on too many demands, it likely closes the door to changing the rules until January.

“It would probably require some compromises with the Democrats to do that, and I’m not sure the speaker wants to do that,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), pointing to things like potentially changing the balance of power on committees.

Democratic interest in a trade-off is also likely to further rankle centrist Republicans who fumed for months after McCarthy got no help from the other party. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and a longtime McCarthy ally, argued that Democrats shouldn’t require concessions in exchange for changing a rule that inspires bipartisan loathing.

Fitzpatrick pointed out that “very few people in the chamber” think the one-vote threshold on a motion to vacate is a “good idea” and predicted it would change next year regardless of which party takes the majority.

“Doing the right thing should be enough of a reason to support something,” he said.