Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

View of the U.S. Capitol prior to a House of Representatives vote on legislation providing $95 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 20, 2024.Ken Cedeno/Reuters

Politics extracts its prices, and a remarkable number of credits and debits were scrambled on Capitol Hill over the weekend when the House of Representatives approved legislation for aid to Ukraine, Israel, and the Indo-Pacific.

The credits: One goes to Joe Biden, who finally gets a longed-for win from the Republicans-controlled House. (His promises to the warrior leaders of Ukraine and Israel have been redeemed). Another goes to House Speaker Mike Johnson, chosen as the GOP leader because of a conviction that he, in the bromide directed in the 1890s to future president William McKinley, had no more backbone than a chocolate éclair. (He showed more backbone than the aptly named hero shrew, the African mammal with the sturdiest spine in the animal kingdom. His fortitude in the face of a mutiny from his one-time conservative compatriots was a rare moment of moral defiance in the American capital).

The debits: A significant one is in the Republican column. Mr. Johnson made an implicit deal with the Democrats to win the US$95.3 billion aid package, and the price is not yet clear. (Except that it will be big, if they can figure out what they want. He owes House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries some big concessions down the line. Watch this space). An additional price may yet to be extracted: rebellious Republicans still may press to remove the House gavel from Mr. Johnson in a second rebellion against a sitting speaker since the new Congress convened last January.

Already three Republican insurgents have indicated their support for declaring the House speakership vacancy – two more lawmakers than is required under current rule to force a vote on whether to retain Mr. Johnson, himself a compromise candidate, in the post.

The route to the aid package – $60.8-billion to Ukraine, $26.4-billion to Israel and $8.1-billion to the Indo-Pacific region, especially Taiwan – was circuitous. But it also was revealing. It underlined the often-arcane ways of Congress that date to the late 18th century and shined a light on the peculiar circumstances of contemporary conservative politics that date to the early 21st century.

In a country where politics is customarily regarded as broken, the road to House passage required lawmakers to broker an unusual deal that broke a long-extant custom.

For decades, the Rules Committee set the contours of the activities of the House, especially the vital question of whether legislation moves to the floor at all. For decades, that powerful panel was the wholly owned subsidiary of House speakers, doing their bidding with neither hesitation nor dissent, but with iron discipline. This time, three Republicans balked at their own leader’s demand that the aid package move forward for the chamber’s consideration – and the Democrats on the committee rushed in to rescue the measure for Mr. Johnson.

This may seem like inside baseball, the political equivalent of the infield fly rule. But it is revelatory of the state of Republican politics today.

The very presence of those rebels on the Rules Committee – daggers at the heart of what is often called “regular order” in the House – was the price that former speaker Kevin McCarthy paid to win the speakership on the 15th ballot of an agonizing process 16 months ago. Another price Mr. McCarthy paid (and it came out of his political exchequer – and may do so also for his successor) was the extraordinary provision permitting a single House member to set in motion the removal of the speaker himself.

The unexpected fallout from the week’s rancour and resentment: Republican regulars now themselves are in rebellion as well. GOP Rep. Michael Lawler of New York was not alone in demanding the removal of the conservatives on the Rules Committee and the end of all the deals that Mr. McCarthy made in his quest to win the speakership.

Mr. Johnson in recent days was the target of relentless rancour from his former Republican patrons and conservative allies. But he also won plaudits from some of his customary rivals and from the traditional corners of the conservative movement. “Mr. Johnson’s behaviour is called leadership,” editorialized The Wall Street Journal, regarded as the voice of conservatism, “and the GOP would be more popular and better able to govern if more of its members showed such mettle themselves, or had more respect for those who demonstrate it.”

This internecine fight among conservatives led firebrands to renew their assaults on the conventions of American politics and led moderate and establishment figures to express frustration that the Republicans were undermining their own credibility as governing leaders, much like the assessment the historian Bruce Catton applied to the Democratic divisions over slavery as the Civil War approached. “With the moderates the will to work out some sort of solution survived,” he wrote in his classic 1961 The Coming Fury, “with lesser men the will to hate and to hurt grew strong.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe