Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

— “Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare, Act II, Scene ii

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., of the United States House of Representatives, rose to the stature deserved of his office and decided to put what he considered right for his nation and the world, today and even more so tomorrow, in voting to support aid for Ukraine along with Israel.

Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., Johnson’s predecessor as speaker in the 1990s and a highly combative conservative, has publicly urged the aid and praised Johnson highly, with a paraphrase of the statement about courage from Shakespeare’s play.

Johnson, generally unknown before becoming speaker last fall, demonstrated skill along with courage in securing approval for his move from former President Donald Trump along with President Joe Biden. In the actual vote, House Democrats voted 210 in favor (three not voting), while Republicans split 101 in favor and 112 against. The aid for Israel passed with much greater Republican support.

Extreme-right House Republicans have vowed revenge, with the predictable Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., vowing to bring Johnson down with a “vacate” vote just as Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., abruptly ended Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s, R-Calif., career last year. However, Democrats now promise to table any such effort.

Speakers John Boehner, R-Ohio, 2011-15, and Paul Ryan, R-Wis., 2015-17, had relatively turbulent terms in office. By contrast, the first woman Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was able to maintain relatively strong party discipline during her two stints from 2007-11 and 2019-23.

A group of House Republicans are fundamentally opposed to government, period. Even shutting down government is welcome, no matter how inconvenient for working people in government and the wider economy.

Right-wing Republicans threatened to oust Boehner if he permitted a federal budget to be passed which included funding for Planned Parenthood. Controversial videos, which alleged a callous attitude by that organization regarding use of fetuses, greatly stoked the always-emotional debate over abortion.

In 2013, Republicans managed to shut down the government for sixteen days as part of the effort to derail the Affordable Care Act. Democrats led by President Barack Obama turned that campaign to their political advantage.

Boehner retired under this pressure and thereby headed off another shutdown.

The practice of holding the federal budget hostage to controversial partisan party maneuvers has now gone on for many years. In 1994, Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives after forty years in minority status. Their majority was led by new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who dramatically accelerated the trend of shifting that office from a relatively nonpartisan to a highly partisan pulpit.

Publicly cool and politically cunning, Clinton moved ahead in the public opinion polls. He was helped by emphasizing fiscal restraint. In the 1996 presidential election, he defeated Republican nominee Senator Bob Dole, R-Kan.

Democrat Sam Rayburn of Texas remains a remarkably durable, successful Speaker of the House. From the 1940s into the 1960s, he skillfully practiced bipartisanship, despite the difficult politics of that era.

Rayburn was speaker for seventeen years over three terms in the post: 1940-47, 1949-53 and 1955-61. That was not a less partisan time than today, but ideological divisions between the two major parties were less stark. Rayburn was also politically masterful.

After World War II, House members of both parties used their own money to buy Rayburn a new car.

Arthur I. Cyr is the author of “After the Cold War” (Palgrave/Macmillan and NYU Press). Contact him at acyr@carthage.edu