May 9, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

As long as there’s a Greene around, Johnson’s ass is Jeffries’

The press corps is starting to tell that story.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Editor’s note: click the headline for a better reading experience. –JS

The previous seven days have featured a lot of build-up in anticipation of last night’s failed vote on Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene’s “motion to vacate the chair.” That’s the rule in the House allowing any member to bring forward a vote to remove the current speaker of the House. There was a lot of excitement, but every one of the reporters who built up that story knew what was going to happen. Nothing

They knew nothing was going to happen to Mike Johnson, the speaker, because they knew Hakeem Jeffries is really in charge of the House. In fact, Jeffries is the House minority leader. His caucus, however, is united while Johnson’s conference, which has a majority of one vote, has been shattered. It never mattered how much Greene wanted him removed. It never mattered how much attention she was getting for her bid to remove him. If Jeffries didn’t want Johnson gone, he wasn’t gone.

And he didn’t want Johnson gone. Why?

Because Johnson is weak on account of people like Greene repeatedly threatening his position. With a weak Republican speaker, Jeffries and the Democrats get things they want. Johnson is so far cooperating. If he doesn’t, Jeffries can wait for conditions to be right to get rid of him.

It never mattered how much Marjorie Taylor Greene wanted Mike Johnson removed as speaker. It never mattered how much attention she was getting for her bid. If Jeffries didn’t want Johnson gone, he wasn’t gone.

Since last May, the Post reported this morning, Jeffries and the Democrats have “helped two Republican speakers over 10 times to pass high-stakes legislation that prevented a debt ceiling catastrophe and multiple government shutdowns. They have also channeled $95 billion in aid to foreign allies including Ukraine; helped restructure a government surveillance mechanism; and surmounted floor blockades by hard-line Republicans in the name of maintaining regular order.”

Reporters knew Jeffries is in charge, but they had decided, per usual, to chase after the Greene story. That’s partly because Greene is a copycat of Donald Trump. She represents in miniature the politics of revolt that has characterized the Republican Party since 2010. But it’s partly due to a bigger misunderstanding of the story of what happened to Johnson’s predecessor, the first speaker in history to be ousted, Kevin McCarthy.

The story goes that Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, also a Trump minion, orchestrated McCarthy’s ouster as punishment for working the Democrats to keep the government open. But that version of the story elides Jeffries’ role. The majority of the GOP conference wanted McCarthy to stay. Gaetz had only a handful of insurgents ready to boot him. If Jeffries didn’t want McCarthy gone, he’d still be speaker.

But McCarthy did something (I’m still not clear what it was) to piss off Jeffries and his caucus. That sealed his fate. The Democrats joined the GOP insurgents to form a majority that showed McCarthy the door.

McCarthy was pretty clear at the time that Gaetz didn’t act alone. He blamed the Democrats for breaking the informal but heretofore strictly observed rule allowing each party to decide its own leader. 

But over time, Jeffries’ role faded in importance. Attention returned to Gaetz and the GOP insurgents, including Greene. Eventually, the story of McCarthy’s ouster was subsumed by the older story about Trump and the politics of revolt in the Republican Party. That story, and all the attention that comes with it, incentivized Greene last week to try to do alone what she believed Gaetz had done alone. All she ended doing, however, was empowering Jeffries. Indeed, as long as there’s a Greene, he’s in charge. As long as there’s a Greene, Johnson’s ass is Jeffries’. 

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I’m not sure why, but at least some reporters are starting to make Jeffries’ command of the House a story in its own right. Over the weekend, he was the subject of an enormous piece on “60 Minutes” in which he said that, “even though we’re in the minority, we effectively have been governing as if we were in the majority because we continue to provide a majority of the votes necessary to get things done.”

“Those are just the facts,” he added, to which “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell didn’t bat an eye, as if she understood that that’s plainly true. Though this is the least productive Congress since the Civil War, if anything gets done, it’s because of Hakeem Jeffries. 

Then came today’s Post in which Marianna Sotomayor reported: “Many argue that Democrats are no longer just the majority in waiting — they have already arrived. Lawmakers of both parties, including Republicans with a distinct bitterness, say that Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries doesn’t just sit atop his party but also the entire House.”

Perhaps the shift is rooted in the fight over aid to Ukraine. 

In voicing opposition to it, Greene ended up repeating Russian propaganda to the point where she cited details so specific and obscure as to expose the Kremlin as its true source. Evidently, this unnerved some leading Republicans. They, along with Fox, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, associated her with Russian propaganda. On CNN, Colorado Congressman Ken Buck called her “Moscow Marjorie.” The Post put that line on its tabloid cover. 

That didn’t stop Greene. She made good on her threat to seek Johnson’s removal in the event that aid to Ukraine passed. That set the stage for a rescue, but not from the Republicans, who are too shattered to act, but from Jeffries. Thanks to Greene, saving Johnson didn’t seem like a partisan power play. It seemed like a move in the national interest. 

Last week, after Ukraine aid passed the House but before Greene filed her motion, Jeffries said that “upon completion of our national security work, the time has come to turn the page on this chapter of Pro-Putin Republican obstruction. If she invokes the motion, it will not succeed.”

It didn’t. 

He did.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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