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White House doesn’t want to touch House speaker drama

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President Joe Biden and Speaker Mike Johnson built an unlikely working relationship in recent months — a partnership that handed Biden a pivotal foreign policy victory and surprised much of Washington, which assumed nothing at all would get done.

But that relationship remains one of convenience. And as congressional Democrats debate whether to prop up Johnson’s speakership amid threats from Republicans looking to oust him, Biden is signaling that he’s going to stay out of it.

The White House will instead leave it up to House Democratic leaders to determine whether to rescue Johnson or let Republicans once again devour their own and pitch the chamber back into chaos.

Within the West Wing, the prevailing belief is that Biden has already gotten everything he could have asked for from Johnson’s brief time as speaker — and that, even if he felt compelled to pay him back, any involvement in a high-stakes speakership fight would hurt, not help.

So he’s staying away. The president has so far refrained from advising House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries on what to do should conservatives try to oust Johnson, aides said. He has offered no assurances about the future in his calls with the Speaker. And after clinching a deal to send billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine, Biden aides believe the House has largely finished its major legislative activity for the year.

“It benefits him politically to have engaged in this negotiation, gotten a bipartisan result and looked like a leader in the U.S. and on the world stage,” said one Democratic strategist in touch with House leadership, who was granted anonymity to freely discuss party dynamics. “Turning around and weighing in one way or another distracts from that win.”

The president’s hands-off approach comes despite Johnson’s decision to work with the administration to pass billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. That work fulfilled a top Biden administration priority, but also enraged a handful of conservative lawmakers who are now intent on forcing Johnson out, in part over the unlikely working relationship he carved out with the Democratic president over the past six months.

A staunch conservative closely aligned with former President Donald Trump, Johnson nevertheless built something of a rapport between his office and senior Biden officials.

The two sides tightroped through a monthslong federal funding fight, managing at every turn to keep the government open. They made a joint push to pass a controversial bill reauthorizing surveillance authorities. And after months of stalled talks, Johnson backed a sweeping foreign aid package that sent funds to Ukraine over the objections of much of the GOP conference.

The agreements eroded Johnson’s support among some of the Republicans who installed him. But they won grudging respect among senior White House officials who knew Johnson was putting himself in danger by even considering a Ukraine aid package. The threat of a motion to vacate underpinned the negotiations between Johnson and Biden aides, who sought to balance the urgency of the matter against the likelihood it would destabilize Johnson’s ability to lead the GOP conference. His actions also impressed many Democratic lawmakers, who have since indicated they’re inclined to help keep him in charge of the House.

“Once you assume the chair, you become an adult and you have to act like an adult, and he did it,” said one adviser to the White House, who was also granted anonymity to discuss sensitive political relations. “Now, even though he’s going with the overwhelming majority of his members, he’s still at risk of losing his job.”

The White House’s view of Johnson as a good-faith operator stands in sharp contrast to senior aides’ opinion of his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, who they regarded as fickle and often unreliable in the lead-up to his ouster last fall.

Yet Biden aides emphasized they won’t try to sway whatever political fate awaits the speaker. The White House is wary of appearing to undermine Jeffries’ authority over his conference, and Biden aides have grown to trust the Democratic leader’s instincts after watching him navigate the chaotic events of the past year.

There are a number of other political variables that could affect Biden’s view of Johnson’s speakership in the lead up to the November election. Among them, he has little that he needs to accomplish legislatively before November, meaning there’s no immediate urgency for stability in the House. In addition, some Biden allies argue that there is a political incentive for Democrats to allow the GOP to self-destruct. With the U.S. embroiled in two major wars, though, others believe it’s critical the House remain functional enough to respond to a sudden emergency. It took Republicans three weeks and a half-dozen votes to settle on Johnson as speaker after ousting McCarthy. Many in the GOP expect a sequel to be just as painful, if not more so.

There’s also the overarching truism that even if Biden did feel strongly about Johnson’s fate, any attempt to engineer an outcome could easily backfire, unifying Republicans against the White House and dividing the Democratic conference in one fell swoop.

“I don’t think there’s anything left that the president feels he has to get done by Election Day,” said the adviser to the White House. “They’re worrying about how do we cement our position in November?”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said following the House vote on the foreign aid package that the administration would stick to its blanket policy against opining on congressional leadership battles, adding that the question of whether to protect Johnson is for Jeffries and his conference to decide.

“We do not get involved,” she said.

Jeffries has been reluctant to commit to saving Johnson, and said during a press conference last week White House officials haven’t weighed in on the potential upcoming decision.

“They have not,” made an argument one way or another, Jeffries said. “That was also the case in October of last year” when Democrats did not save McCarthy.

But within his conference, several Democrats say they favor shielding the speaker from his own party — a reality that Jeffries acknowledged as far back as February.

Many House Democrats believe Johnson displayed his mettle in supporting Ukraine aid, lawmakers and aides said, and deserves to remain in the job. They have little appetite for enduring the bedlam that would ensue if the House were suddenly speakerless once again.

Politically, some argue, Democrats benefit from showing they’re the responsible adults in the room and will be rewarded for crossing the aisle to oppose the GOP’s most extreme tendencies. Personally, they acknowledge, it may simply feel good to deal a resounding loss to antagonists like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a now vocal Johnson critic.

“It’s a low-risk play for Democrats, with some upsides,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. “There’s a yearning for some normalcy if you’re a member, and to leave the wartime footing.”

That view isn’t unanimous, especially among those who now feel Johnson is getting outsized credit for doing what in their estimation was the bare minimum.

“No one should confuse Mike Johnson with a profile in courage or a great hero for doing the right thing after everything else failed,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.).

Others note that Johnson has yet to back off other efforts to damage the White House, including his support for the impeachment investigation into Biden. Not moving to prevent his ouster would derail the rest of the GOP’s objectives.

“If part of the Republican caucus wants to fire bullets at the other party of the Republican caucus, why would we get in the way of that?” said the Democratic strategist in touch with House leadership. “Chaos is our friend. Republican dysfunction is our friend. Who is not our friend is Mike Johnson.”

Those deliberations are only likely to intensify when the House returns next week, setting the stage for Greene to officially challenge Johnson over his job. But the White House insists it won’t be part of those discussions — and across the spectrum, from Johnson’s staunchest opponents to his closest allies, there’s broad agreement that’s probably for the best.

“Anything that Biden said positive about any Republican,” said Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), who is close with his former colleagues in the House and supports Johnson, “is not good.”