July 19, 2024

When Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the House Democratic leader, was in Munich in mid-February for the annual international security conference, Representative Michael R. Turner, the Ohio Republican and chairman of the Intelligence Committee, quietly sought him out with a request.

Mr. Turner, according to those familiar with the private conversation, told Mr. Jeffries that he was committed to funding Ukraine’s war effort and believed that Speaker Mike Johnson would ultimately put an aid package on the floor, in defiance of right-wing Republicans opposed to doing so.

But the Ohioan also felt it would help stiffen the speaker’s spine if Mr. Jeffries could make it clear in some way that if Mr. Johnson were to do the right thing, Democrats would not let him be ousted by rebellious ultraconservatives, as they had when Kevin McCarthy faced a mutiny last year. Mr. Jeffries said he would take the idea under advisement.

About 10 days later, after a Feb. 27 Oval Office session with President Biden and congressional leaders, Mr. Jeffries made his move. At a luncheon the next day at the Washington bureau of The New York Times, Mr. Jeffries responded to a question that he believed “a reasonable number” of Democrats would bail out Mr. Johnson if he put the aid package to a vote and faced ouster because of it.

Mr. Jeffries has been careful to say since then that his comment was strictly an observation, not a commitment. But that delicately worded signal is now seen as critical to bolstering Mr. Johnson in his decision to move ahead with the Ukraine funding in the face of a promised backlash.

It is also a proposition that could be tested as soon as this week if Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, forges ahead with her threat to force a vote to oust Mr. Johnson over the package and several other issues on which she said the speaker has put the party on a “path of self-inflicted destruction.”

In an interview, Mr. Jeffries said his comment about coming to Mr. Johnson’s rescue remains only an observation, and that Democrats would likely meet early this week to map their strategy. He said he had no knowledge of Ms. Greene’s plans, but added that the fact that she is the one leading the rebellion probably works to Mr. Johnson’s advantage.

“Mike Johnson doesn’t need too many Democratic friends,” Mr. Jeffries said. “She is one of the best things the speaker has going for him because so many people find her insufferable.”

But given Mr. Johnson’s tiny margin of control in the House, if Ms. Greene were to follow through on her threat to force a snap vote to vacate the speaker’s chair, she would need only a few G.O.P. supporters to muster a majority — unless Democrats banded together to vote against it.

Mr. Jeffries’s impromptu decision to send word of a potential lifeline to the speaker through the media was just one moment when he played a crucial role in passing a final government spending agreement as well as the long-stalled foreign aid measure that included funding for Ukraine.

Approval was never a sure thing after Mr. McCarthy blindsided Democrats and stripped the money from a spending deal in September, just hours before government funding was to run out.

“This was a touch-and-go situation from the very beginning because of the fact that there is a large and growing pro-Putin faction within the U.S. Republican Party that was determined to stop the Congress from funding the Ukrainian war effort,” Mr. Jeffries said. “That was a reality that we were confronting that was going to be very difficult to overcome.”

An initial challenge for the top House Democrat arose after the brutal attack that Hamas led on Israel in October. Mr. Johnson seized the opportunity to try to quickly push through aid to Israel without assistance to Ukraine or humanitarian aid for Gaza. The measure could have ultimately killed the Ukraine funding had it become law.

It presented a difficult choice for many Democrats who were eager to demonstrate their allegiance to Israel but did not want to abandon Ukraine. They were also infuriated that the speaker sought to pay for the aid by cutting I.R.S. enforcement backed by the Democrats. In the end, just 12 House Democrats voted for it, signaling to the Democratic majority in the Senate that they should block it and keep pushing for the money for Ukraine.

Mr. Jeffries said that House Democrats “understood that if Johnson succeeded in his effort to undermine Ukraine funding and humanitarian assistance, that the Senate might never be able to get to a place where a comprehensive national security bill could be passed.”

Over months, Mr. Jeffries kept in consultation with the speaker as well as Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader. He also engaged in White House sessions and conference calls in which he joined Mr. Biden and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, in keeping the pressure on Mr. Johnson over Ukraine. They sought to impress upon him the urgency of the moment from a global perspective, a message that ultimately seemed to carry some weight.

Mr. Turner, after the talk with Mr. Jeffries in Munich, also took it upon himself to underscore the idea that Democrats would be there for the speaker if he acted. Appearing on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” on March 31, Mr. Turner reiterated that Mr. Jeffries “has made it absolutely clear that he will not join with rebels in the Republican side to take down Speaker Johnson on this.”

The final push came the weekend that Iran launched its attack on Israel. Mr. Johnson had returned from a meeting in Florida with former President Donald J. Trump, where Mr. Trump was supportive and said he recognized that the speaker had few options with such a small majority. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Jeffries had a one-on-one call in which they agreed on the need for action, and they both joined a call with Mr. Biden and other congressional leaders.

While showing willingness to move ahead, Mr. Johnson made one last plea for tying the aid to border security provisions, an idea quickly dismissed by Mr. Jeffries and the other Democratic leaders after Mr. Trump had blown up an earlier bipartisan proposal that included border measures.

In the end, House Democrats provided both the votes necessary to push the foreign aid package out of the critical Rules Committee and to the floor over a right-wing blockade and the majority of votes to pass the Ukraine aid bill itself — which a majority of Republicans opposed. The votes offered another example of the de facto coalition government that has seen Congress through major fights the past 18 months.

Now Mr. Jeffries and House Democrats may have to bail out the speaker again, a prospect that could save the House from further chaos but also potentially weaken the speaker if he is seen as indebted to Democrats.

“Republicans will have to work that out on their end,” Mr. Jeffries said. “The reality of this particular Congress is that we are functioning in a manner consistent with a bipartisan governing coalition in order to get things done for the American people.”

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