Speaker Mike Johnson Wrestles with GOP Division Over Foreign Aid Decision

The days following an unexpected attack by Iran on Israel were pivotal for House Speaker Mike Johnson.

by Faruk Imamovic
Speaker Mike Johnson Wrestles with GOP Division Over Foreign Aid Decision
© Getty Images/Nathan Howard

The days following an unexpected attack by Iran on Israel were pivotal for House Speaker Mike Johnson. Amidst this global tension, he engaged in a crucial conversation with House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries. According to a source familiar with the discussion, Johnson expressed readiness to act on foreign aid, a stance that risked infuriating some members of his own party who opposed additional support, particularly concerning Ukraine. Jeffries, probing the political landscape, questioned Johnson on the number of Republican votes he could muster, understanding that Democrats would need to supply the remainder to secure passage.

Facing the Fallout

Upon returning to Washington, D.C., Johnson encountered fierce opposition from several GOP colleagues, highlighting the internal strife within the party. His decision to pursue separate votes on aid for Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan—and later consolidating these into a single legislative package without addressing conservative demands for stricter border policies—sparked significant controversy. This strategic move even threatened his position, with potential calls for a vote to remove him as speaker.

On a particularly tense Tuesday, Johnson found himself besieged by members expressing their dissatisfaction and demanding concessions. By nightfall, grappling with the immense pressure, Johnson turned to prayer, reflecting on the significant decisions before him. According to House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, "He was torn between trying to save his job and doing the right thing."

Johnson's resolve solidified by Wednesday, deciding to proceed with the foreign aid package—a decision that would lead to a dramatic confrontation on the House floor. Insults flew between Republican members as Johnson navigated the deeply divided factions within his party.

The Legislative Battle

The aid package, totaling $95 billion and endorsed by President Joe Biden, eventually passed with significant Democratic support and a modest Republican backing. It was then set to move to the Senate for final approval. Despite the bipartisan success, Johnson faced criticism from some Republicans, including those who waved Ukrainian flags on the House floor, prompting him to remind members of decorum: "We should only wave one flag on the House floor."

Johnson's political journey has been marked by an evolution in his stance on Ukraine. Influenced by conversations with key figures, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Johnson shifted from his previous opposition to funding Ukraine to advocating strongly for it. A critical intelligence briefing further underscored the global stakes, convincing him of the necessity of U.S. aid in Ukraine's battle against Russian aggression.

Despite potential threats to his speakership from within his party, particularly from figures like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Johnson maintained a focus on bipartisan support, often necessitated by the narrow majority in the House. His commitment to this approach was evident as he managed to navigate through the complexities of legislative leadership during a time of intense national and international scrutiny.

House Speaker Mike Johnson Pushes His Foreign Aid Plan Forward
House Speaker Mike Johnson Pushes His Foreign Aid Plan Forward© Getty Images/Kent Nishimura

The Personal and the Political: A Speaker's Dilemma

Political Risks and Personal Convictions

The implications of Johnson's decisions extend beyond the corridors of Congress, touching on his personal life and reflecting his deep-seated beliefs. Johnson, a newly minted Speaker, faced not only the immediate backlash from within his party but also the broader geopolitical consequences of his actions. The Speaker's engagement with foreign aid was not just a matter of political maneuvering but a deeply personal issue, amplified by his son's recent acceptance into the Naval Academy. Johnson's personal stake in the military's future made his commitment to foreign aid more poignant.

In his own words, Johnson explained his stance with a frankness rarely seen in political discourse: “To put it bluntly, I would rather send bullets to Ukraine than American boys. My son is going to begin in the Naval Academy this fall. This is a live-fire exercise for me as it is so many American families,” he said. This declaration not only framed his legislative decisions in a personal context but also aimed to resonate with American families who bear the ultimate cost of international conflicts.

Legislative Maneuvering and Internal Conflict

The path to passing the foreign aid package was fraught with internal party conflicts and strategic decisions that tested Johnson's leadership. Initially resistant to taking action on Ukraine, Johnson's hand was forced by a combination of high-level advocacy and urgent geopolitical developments. The attack by Iran on Israel acted as a catalyst, propelling Congress toward urgent action.

However, Johnson's strategy to navigate his divided party by holding separate votes on aid for Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan before merging them into a single package was met with stiff resistance. This approach, designed to appease various factions within the party, instead led to a potential crisis, with hardline conservatives threatening to remove him as speaker.

The dynamics within the GOP were further complicated by Johnson's consideration of a rules change to raise the threshold for a motion to vacate the speaker’s chair, a move that sparked intense debate and opposition among his colleagues. In dramatic scenes on the House floor, Johnson was seen negotiating with fervent right-wing members, asserting his leadership amidst chaotic opposition. The spectacle highlighted the intense pressures and the high-stakes environment in which legislative decisions are made.