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Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., arrives to speak with reporters to discuss his proposal of sending crucial bipartisan support to aid Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan after weeks of inaction, at the Capitol in Washington, on April 17.J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press

One way to know that a congressional issue is truly serious is that the Speaker of the House of Representatives has given lawmakers, who prize their weekends at home, a Saturday deadline to review a piece of legislation. Another is that the Republicans are threatening to topple a Speaker of their own party over the issue. A third is that the Democrats are contemplating bailing out a Republican Speaker whose views on just about every subject – abortion, gay rights, climate change, the legitimacy of the election of Joe Biden – they find repellent.

And then there is the clincher: the tossing around of the names Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill, the principals in the run-up to the Second World War in Britain – an exercise that saw the unusual if not unprecedented phenomenon of former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, an accomplished partisan pugilist with a PhD in history, actually agreeing with a prominent Democrat, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, on this occasion on the Churchill analogy.

The fight in the House that is spilling over to the weekend is really about five matters: funding for Ukraine and Israel, to be sure, but also over whether the Republicans, who already are into their second Speaker in fewer than seven months, will allow their own leader to lead; whether a small minority, in this case a set of right-wing rebels, will rule a chamber that for centuries has been the suzerainty of the majority; whether a slim Republican majority will have to depend on Democrats to pass vital legislation; and, of course, whether providing assistance to Ukraine is in the tradition of Churchill, who recognized that small steps of aggression can lead to bigger ones, or of Chamberlain, who at a 1938 summit with Hitler in Munich allowed a dictator to have his way, in that case over the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.

The Churchill versus Chamberlain matter is still a provocative essay question for a final exam in an undergraduate modern European history class. The other issues are important elements of a contemporary test of the American political system.

House rebels have indicated that they will proceed with toppling Speaker Mike Johnson, who – as he was in the successful effort to avert a government shutdown earlier this spring – is in the uncomfortable position of relying on House Democrats to pass important legislation. That new calculus prompted Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of the principal Republican insurgents, to say, “You are seriously out of step with Republicans by continuing to pass bills dependent on Democrats.”

Mr. Johnson has vowed to press on – and, ultimately to survive the challenges to his leadership.

GOP Representative Thomas Massie has joined Ms. Greene in her determination to overthrow Mr. Johnson – enough support for the mutiny to prevail given the slim, one-vote cushion the Republicans will have for at least part of the remainder of the 188th Congress. (The size of the Republican majority will depend on vacancies and the resolution of special elections to fill them.)

But if Mr. Jeffries and his Democrats ride to Mr. Johnson’s rescue – an unusual gambit but a possible, if not likely, one – he would be able to prevail, although the price for that rescue attempt may be high. The Democrats have yet to set that price.

There have been moments of upheaval and chaos in the House before. The selection of a House Speaker required 133 ballots over two agonizing months in 1855, when the chamber, and the country, were bitterly divided over states’ rights and slavery.

But generally, the House conducts its business in a far more controlled, disciplined way than the Senate – in large measure because of the strictness of the chamber’s rules and the prevailing notion that the House follows the inclinations of the majority and of the Speaker.

Now the House is in danger of taking on the character of the Senate – where minority rights are enshrined; where an individual lawmaker can hold up a presidential appointment or a piece of legislation with a mere signal of opposition; and where, even when filibusters – the longest one was 24 hours and 18 minutes, over the 1957 civil-rights bill by Senator Strom Thurmond, then a Democrat but later a Republican – are choked off, debate can continue for an additional 30 hours.

Amid all the debate about Churchill and Chamberlain in the past several days, none of the conservatives at the centre of the debate over providing some US$61-billion – the figure changes from time to time – in funding for Ukraine (and, not so incidentally, for providing additional aid for Israel) is quoting the 18th-century conservative icon Edmund Burke, who, in his remarks to his constituents in Bristol in 1774, a few months short of 250 years ago, said: “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests … but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Hakeem Jeffries as Majority Leader. He is Minority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. This version has been updated.

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