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House Democrats keep options open as effort to oust Johnson grows

By Lauren Fox and Kristin Wilson, CNN

(CNN) — House Democrats are divided over whether they would try and save Speaker Mike Johnson if an effort to oust him gets underway in the chamber, with institutionalists insisting that voting against a motion to vacate could protect the body from devolving into chaos mere months before a presidential election while progressive members warn that helping Johnson now could ultimately undermine the party with its base, which already may be less than enthusiastic about showing up at the polls in November.

It’s a delicate call that most members are looking to House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries to ultimately make. But unlike in October, when Democrats were unified against helping defeat the motion to vacate against then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, this time the caucus is seeing schisms form. Many Democrats are apprehensive about catapulting the House back into a chaotic speakership fight during a time of tensions following the October 7 terror attacks against Israel, and a very different global stage than what existed just six months ago.

“There is no way I’m going to let Marjorie Taylor Greene, who wants to secede from the Union, take over the House. There’s no way I’m going to let Thomas Massie, who has never voted to help any of our allies. He would let the Ayatollah go right into Israel. He’d let Putin take all of Europe,” Florida Rep. Jared Moskowitz said on CNN after Massie announced Tuesday he’d join Greene in her effort to oust Johnson. “There is no way I’m going to side with these people, stand by while they let the world burn.”

Recently reelected New York Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi has also pledged to kill an effort to oust Johnson if it came to that on the floor, but other Democrats – including one who held the same job as Johnson – aren’t ready to make that kind of commitment.

“Let’s just hope that that does not happen, and that we can do our responsibilities, protect and defend our own democracy as we protect theirs,” former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “We want to take it one step at a time. But the fact is that if would be shameful for the Republicans to go to the lowest common denominator.”

Some willing to save Johnson, with conditions

For some, there is a wary willingness to stop Johnson’s defenestration, but with conditions. California Democratic Rep. Sara Jacobs said that Ukraine funding would have to pass out of the chamber before she’d consider sparing Johnson an early exit from his job.

“If Speaker Johnson wants to talk to Hakeem Jeffries, I think we’d be open to something like that. But I don’t think any of that will be possible unless Ukraine funding is passed,” she said. “I think we would need to see Ukraine funding passed before anything else.”

Behind the scenes, Jeffries has sought to downplay hypotheticals, urging members in a private caucus meeting Tuesday morning to understand the substance of the foreign aid bills expected later this week before weighing in on how the process – or any aftermath – should play out.

But deciding whether to save Johnson could come sooner rather than later. Unlike with McCarthy, who went on cable news and assailed Democrats in the days before eight Republicans led by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz voted to oust him – a move that irritated Democrats and undermined their willingness to throw him a life raft – many Democrats feel as though Johnson has been a fair negotiator in recent months.

In his short time as speaker, Johnson has worked closely with Jeffries, the White House and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to secure a series of must-pass spending bills to avert a shutdown, no small task for a speaker who faced massive opposition to many of the bills from those within his own party. Johnson also had to secure a path forward to renew part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, another bill that angered hardliners in his ranks, particularly after a proposed amendment was defeated on the floor, including a no vote by Johnson himself. Although Johnson’s policy vision is vastly different from Democrats’ – he rejected the Senate’s bipartisan immigration proposal within hours of its release and moved forward with an impeachment of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas – many Democrats both publicly and privately argue Johnson has been an honest broker since taking the speaker’s gavel last fall, making them more willing to help him at a time when they realize the alternative could be a much more difficult GOP leader.

“If he’s a man of his word, and he has told me directly that he intends to bring this package to the floor – if all the details are there, I don’t see that we would have any reason, I wouldn’t personally have any reason, to remove him from the chair,” New Hampshire Democratic Rep. Ann Kuster told CNN.

It may not ultimately matter if Democrats are united or not. If only a handful of Republicans vote to oust Johnson, only a handful of Democrats would be needed to step in and help him keep his job.

With the Friday resignation of Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher from Congress, Johnson will have just a one-vote margin on any vote, giving each member of his conference the ability to scuttle legislation they don’t like, unless he can get Democrats to vote with him. Should Greene follow through on her threat of a motion to vacate, and be joined by Massie, Republicans supporting Johnson would make a motion to table, a procedural vote that would set aside Greene’s motion.

And that is where Democrats would have to decide if they’d help Johnson.

‘How often are we going to have to do this?’

Jeffries said last week he’d made the “observation, not a declaration” that if the Louisiana Republican allowed the House to vote on the national security bill, “I believe there are a reasonable number of Democrats who would not want to see the speaker fall as a result of doing the right thing.”

But some Democrats are adamant they won’t help Johnson under any circumstance.

“I am a Democrat. Everything he stands for, I oppose,” Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly said. “It’s simply not viable for Democrats to keep him in that chair.”

“How often are we going to have to do this? What do you think his shelf life is if he’s the Republican speaker who lives at the sufferance of Democrats, in his own caucus?” he asked.

Putting a Ukraine aid package on the floor – with the motion to vacate threat hanging over him – would no doubt be Johnson’s biggest gamble yet. The specifics of the aid packages have yet to be rolled out, and most Democrats CNN spoke to said they’d need to see those plans in detail before deciding if they’d help Johnson. At the top of their list: a requirement that the package include $9 billion in humanitarian aid for people around the world, including in Haiti, Sudan and Gaza.

“I am not answering speculative questions about what the speaker’s fate is,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut said, “For me, the moment is, how are we getting a national security package on the floor of the House?”

“We’ve waited too long to get to this point,” she said.

But there are those who argue that Democrats can’t dismiss the possibility that another speaker fight would devolve the institution they want to protect into yet another tenuous chapter that could drag on for weeks or even months. The last speaker battle raged on for three weeks as lawmakers careened from one candidate to another, and as members battled over long-held grudges. Without a speaker, lawmakers can’t bring legislation to the floor or conduct other business, a huge liability in a volatile world, members warn.

“We’ve been dealing with so much chaos and so much dysfunction there that we would like to try to stabilize the situation as much as possible so we can at least get aid to our besieged foreign allies,” Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin said.

Rep. Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, warned that while it is ultimately up to Jeffries to pick the path for the caucus, his preference is to avoid a messy speaker fight.

“Gerry is articulating a fair consideration which is how much are we – who get called Bolsheviks and traitors and you, know, every name in the book – how much of it is in our job description to rescue them from chaos,” Himes said of Connolly’s view. “What we are here to do is get big things done. And unlike Republicans, perhaps push our partisan concerns to the side.”

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