Speaker Johnson in increasingly tough spot on Ukraine

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is in an increasingly tough spot on Ukraine, wedged between a Senate moving toward approving aid for Kyiv and House conservatives warning that any support for the U.S. ally could cost him his job.

Johnson — who is coming off a difficult week that has raised new questions about his ability to lead the fractious GOP conference — will soon be confronted with some tough decisions on Ukraine, as the embattled country approaches the two-year mark in its war against Russia.

On Thursday, the Senate cleared an initial procedural hurdle for a national security supplemental that includes aid for Ukraine, Israel and Indo-Pacific allies. Several more votes remain before the chamber clears the funding.

The successful vote came after conservatives in both chambers — at the urging of former President Trump — torpedoed the same package with a bipartisan border deal attached.

Johnson previously called for splitting the supplemental aid into different bills and has demanded numerous conditions on approving aid for Ukraine.

But unlike the foreign aid and border security package — which he said would have been “dead on arrival” in the House — the GOP Speaker did not completely rule out moving a Senate supplemental that includes Ukraine and Israel aid when asked Wednesday.

“Look, we’ll see what the Senate does,” Johnson told reporters. “We’re allowing the process to play out, and we’ll handle it as it is sent over. I have made very clear that you have to address these issues on their own merits.”

And a day earlier, he said that the idea of approving aid to Ukraine has “not been abandoned.”

Moving any legislation with Ukraine aid, whether packaged with other funding or as a stand-alone bill, however, would present a series of landmines for the new Speaker.

Johnson would likely have to depend on Democratic votes to advance funding for Ukraine, a reality that would further anger conservatives. A growing contingent of the GOP conference has become skeptical of sending more aid to Kyiv. The shift has been powered in part by Trump’s opposition, which Republican leaders cannot ignore as he tightens his grip on the party’s presidential nomination.

“I hope he doesn’t put the Ukraine bill on the floor,” House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a top Trump ally on Capitol Hill, said of Johnson.

Last year, the House approved $300 million in new aid for Ukraine in a 311-117 vote. But in a flashpoint for Republicans, more GOP lawmakers opposed the aid than supported it — 101 voted “yes,” 117 were “no” — a sign of dwindling support for Ukraine within the conference.

The Speaker has consistently called on the White House to provide Congress with more information on its strategy and endgame in Ukraine, as well as accountability measures for the funding.

Then there is the question of Johnson’s job security. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a leading foot soldier for Trump, has warned she will bring a measure to oust Johnson from the Speakership if he moves Ukraine aid.

But asked on Wednesday how she would react to Johnson putting Ukraine aid on the floor without a border package, Greene told Bloomberg that she wants to talk to the Speaker first before reiterating the threat.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who led the charge to oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), was among the many conservatives cheering the demise of the Senate’s initial agreement combining Ukraine aid with border security measures. He warned that Republicans are ready to go to war against the slimmed-down Senate version, particularly if the foreign aid isn’t paid for by other changes in the federal budget. 

“There’s a celebratory mood about killing that bad Senate amnesty-war bill, and we may have to kill a few more,” Gaetz said.

And the pressure on Johnson is just beginning to ratchet up. 

The Senate voted 67-32 on Thursday to advance a legislative vehicle that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) says will be used to move funding for Ukraine, Israel, Indo-Pacific security and humanitarian assistance for civilians around the world. Seventeen Republicans voted to advance the package, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The emerging dynamics are painting a no-win situation for Johnson, who is already coming off an embarrassing week. Two high-profile measures he brought to the floor Tuesday failed within minutes of each other, including a resolution to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Johnson had tried to set the tone in the foreign aid debate this week, bringing a $17.6 billion stand-alone Israel aid bill to the floor that did not include any offsets to new spending — unlike a previous $14 billion Israel package with cuts to IRS funding that passed largely along party lines in November.

The majority of Democrats voted against the legislation Tuesday, describing it as a political ploy meant to tank the Senate’s foreign aid and border bill package. Just more than a dozen Republicans also opposed the measure, criticizing the lack of offsets.

While the bill got support from a majority of the chamber, it couldn’t clear the two-thirds majority threshold required to pass it under a fast-track process.

Johnson has said he will attempt to bring up the bill through a regular process that only requires a simple majority threshold for passage. But that comes with the risk of fiscal hawks sinking it on a procedural vote — and faces skepticism.

Over the weekend, House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he was “very concerned” about the strategy of pushing another Israel-only bill not tied to Ukraine and that lawmakers “have to make certain that there is a path” to approve Ukraine funding.

Another potential way to advance Ukraine funding would be to pair it with a must-pass measure, like government funding.

But Johnson has already spent months tussling with the right flank of his party over spending bills and may have little appetite to give them more ammunition.

Republican supporters of Ukraine aid had hoped to overcome resistance from within their own ranks by pairing it with sweeteners.

Months of calls from Republicans to address border security — and months of negotiations to craft a bill to do so — led to the package that conservatives killed in the Senate this week.

Now, many House conservatives are pressing Biden to take executive action on the border and are warning there is no chance the lower chamber will pass Ukraine aid until that happens. 

“If the president secured the southern border — which he could do by executive order today — if he did that, you would have room to figure out how to get money for Ukraine. Many members on Capitol Hill would go for it,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) said. “But without a secure southern border, it’s not going to happen.”

Asked about the potential backlash against Johnson if the Speaker were to put such a bill on the floor, Donalds suggested it would be severe.

“I do not think that would be received well by the Republican House, let me put it that way,” he said. 

Mike Lillis contributed.

Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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