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Seeking ‘the right side of history,’ Speaker Mike Johnson risks his job to deliver aid to Ukraine

WASHINGTON — Contemplating a decision so grave that it could change the course of history — as well as end his own career — House Speaker Mike Johnson prayed for guidance.

As a conservative Christian, the speaker struggled over whether to lead the House in approving $95 billion in desperately needed war aid to Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies, which was opposed by many in his own Republican majority — some so strongly that they would try to start up. him from office.

Or he could do nothing, cut off the flow of US aid and possibly save his own job, but secure his place as Speaker of the House of Representatives who led the US withdrawal from the world stage and left Ukraine to fend for itself as the country loses ground against the Russian invasion. .

When Johnson met with colleagues at the speaker’s office late into the night this week, they prayed about it.

“And then he said to me the next day, I want to be on the right side of history,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Less than six months in office, Johnson’s leadership will help determine whether the US will be able to maintain its position as what the speaker has called a “beacon of light” for the world, or whether military and humanitarian aid will erode. a crucial moment for the country, its allies and the speaker’s own livelihood. Voting will take place this weekend.

“He’s learning,” said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House Speaker.

Gingrich praised Johnson for not being intimidated by the far-right Republicans who sought to remove him from office, and instead reaching into his own deep well of convictions as a Ronald Reagan-era Republican with an expansive view of the role of the US, its allies and its own speakership to make a decision.

“This is the United States House. This is not a political playground,” Gingrich said. “We are talking about real history, we are talking about whether Russia might occupy Ukraine.”

Johnson entered the speaker’s office last fall, a relative unknown who emerged only after a chaotic internal party search to replace Kevin McCarthy, the first speaker in U.S. history to be removed from office.

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Almost an accidental speaker, Johnson had no training and little time to prepare. One of his most significant achievements was leading Donald Trump’s failed legal efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 election loss in the lead-up to the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.

From the start, the question hanging over the Louisiana lawmaker’s fourth term was clear: would Johnson become a speaker with a firm grip on the gavel, using the power of the second-place office the president’s line of succession?

Or would the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who portrays himself as a “servant leader” in the Christian tradition, be dependent on the unruly, essentially ungovernable Republican majority, many of whom aligned with former President Trump.

“This is a Churchill or Chamberlain moment,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democratic leader, referring to Britain’s leaders of the World War II era.

After months of dithering on Ukraine aid, Johnson this week appeared determined to move past the populist far-right flank and rely on Democrats to advance the package, highly unusual in the deeply polarized House of Representatives.

He recently met with Trump, who objects to much foreign aid and has invited Russia to “do whatever they want” in Ukraine, presenting his plan and dodging public criticism from the former president.

Trump also gave Johnson some needed support by thwarting the attempt by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of the presidential candidate’s strongest allies in Congress, to expel the speaker.

In return, Johnson told Trump he could be the “most consistent president yet” when he returns to the White House.

At the same time, Johnson has spoken privately with President Biden, who gave Johnson a boost by quickly endorsing his foreign aid plan.

Yet what used to be seen as the way Congress worked, the shared commitment to bipartisan compromise, has become such a political imperative that more Republicans, including Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Paul Gosar of Arizona, said they would join Greene’s attempt to depose the government. Johnson. Others said he should simply resign.

‘I don’t think he’s brave. I think he fell right into the swamp,” said Rep. Eli Crane, R-Ariz., a hardliner who voted to oust McCarthy and is considering the same for Johnson.

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During his short term as speaker, Johnson has made a habit of calling lawmakers behind closed doors in his Capitol office for often long meetings. What some see as maddening sessions of endless arguments, limiting the speaker’s power, others appreciate as him listening to lawmakers.

As crowds of spring tourists walked past his office this week, Johnson entrenched himself among lawmakers. One meeting lasted until midnight. The next day he showed unusual determination.

“History judges us by what we do,” Johnson said during an impromptu news conference in Statuary Hall.

“I could make a selfish decision and do something different, but I’m doing what I think is right here,” he said.

Johnson announced that his son will attend the Naval Academy this fall.

“To put it bluntly, I would rather send bullets to Ukraine than to American guys,” he said.

“This is a real exercise for me because it concerns so many American families. This isn’t a game. This is not a joke.”

With the threat of his removal escalating, Johnson said he would “let the chips fall where they may” on his own work.

On Friday, an overwhelming majority of the House of Representatives, more than 300 Democrats more than Republicans, voted to pass the package.

Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., said of Johnson: “I, for one, am very proud of what we would all point to as a profile of courage in the face of these types of threats.”

But Democrats said they were stunned and saddened that it took Johnson so long to do what they see as the right thing.

“This is a delayed profile,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.

Some Democrats say that, contrary to their refusal to help McCarthy stay in power, they would vote to save Johnson’s job — if that’s what he wants.

A growing list of Republican speakers in the House of Representatives, starting with Gingrich, were driven from office or, like John Boehner and Paul Ryan, simply left prematurely.

___

Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.

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