US aid to Ukraine hinges on House Speaker Johnson. His leadership is being tested by the far right

Feb 16, 2024, 10:03 PM

FILE - Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., meets with reporters following a closed-door GOP m...

FILE - Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., meets with reporters following a closed-door GOP meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Feb. 14, 2024. With U.S. aid for Ukraine teetering in Congress, it's up to Johnson to decide what happens next. The Republican speaker Johnson's leadership will determine whether the U.S. House will agree to approve more aid to Ukraine. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke with congressional leaders in Washington late last year he told them privately what is now public: With U.S. weapons they could win the war against Russia, without them Russian President Vladimir Putin would be victorious.

In a subsequent meeting with new House Speaker Mike Johnson, a looming deadline for the supplies came into focus.

Now, with U.S. aid for Ukraine teetering in Congress, it’s up to Johnson to decide what happens next.

The Republican’s leadership will determine whether the House will agree to approve more aid for Ukraine or allow the U.S. commitment to wither, the end of the line for the embattled young democracy in Kyiv.

“We have to help now,” President Joe Biden implored Congress on Friday from the White House.

The political and policy decisions ahead in Congress are gravely uncertain. Johnson is insisting he won’t be “rushed” into approving the $95.3 billion foreign aid package from the Senate, despite overwhelming support from most Democrats and almost half the Republicans. But he has yet to chart a path forward in his chamber.

While many in Congress view Putin as a global threat, particularly after recent interview with the Russian leader.

Even the sudden death of Alexei Navalny, the most famous political prisoner in Russia and Putin’s biggest rival, did not appear to move the House speaker Friday to commit to support for Ukraine.

“As Congress debates the best path forward to support Ukraine, the United States, and our partners, must be using every means available to cut off Putin’s ability to fund his unprovoked war in Ukraine and aggression against the Baltic states,” Johnson said in a statement.

Just months on the job, the new speaker is prone to dithering on big questions of the day as he tries to unite his deeply fractured but paper-thin House GOP majority, which is filled with up-and-coming figures challenging his leadership and, at times, threatening his ouster.

In one of his first interviews since taking the gavel in October, Johnson told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that Congress was “not going to abandon” Ukraine.

But in the months since, Johnson’s bottom-up leadership style, in which he tries to hear out all comers, has created a leadership vacuum on Ukraine aid that others are increasingly willing and able to fill.

Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a Trump ally who opposes more aid to Ukraine, said he hopes to lead a new generation of Republican lawmakers eager to turn away from traditional GOP interventionism around the world.

Gaetz said he believes additional U.S. military aid for Ukraine risks escalating the conflict in ways potentially harmful to Americans.

“And I think that is a lot more significant to my constituents than which dude gets to run Crimea,” Gaetz said, referring to the region Russia has claimed from Ukraine as its own.

If the $95 billion aid package was put to a vote, Johnson would find overwhelming support in the House from a coalition of Democrats and Republicans. Anchoring the package is $61 billion for Ukraine, mainly in the form of military equipment from the U.S. It also sends foreign assistance and humanitarian aid to Israel, Gaza and allies in the Indo-Pacific region, including Taiwan.

Biden and the Democratic congressional leaders are imploring the speaker to cast off his right wing and join forces with them to send a sweeping bipartisan message of U.S. leadership in supporting Ukraine and confirming the U.S. commitment to its allies around the world, especially as Trump criticizes the NATO alliance.

“House Republicans can either choose America’s national security interests or choose Vladimir Putin and Russia — that is not a difficult choice,” House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries said after speaking with Johnson midweek.

“The national security bill should be put on the floor for an up or down vote, and it will pass with overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans,” Jeffries said.

But for Johnson, eyeing his own political future, the choices are different. If he reaches across the aisle to Democrats for a partnership, he is likely to face immediate calls for his ouster. That’s what happened when the far right booted his predecessor, former GOP Rep. Kevin McCarthy, after he joined forces with Democrats to pass legislation last fall to keep the federal government from shutting down.

Congress is away for a recess, but various coalitions of lawmakers have stepped into the void trying to engineer solutions to help Johnson broker the divide.

One idea, from centrist Republican and Democratic lawmakers, would be to scale back the package to $66 billion, primarily military aid, with nearly $48 billion for Ukraine, but without the economic or humanitarian aid of the Senate-passed bill. It also would tack on strict immigration controls on the U.S.-Mexico border similar to some that Republicans had pushed for, but ultimately rejected, in the Senate compromise.

Another idea is to seize some of the $300 billion in Russian assets that are parked in U.S. banks, something the Biden administration has considered and Johnson appeared to reference in his statement Friday as he searches for ways to avoid using taxpayer money to pay for the military aid to Ukraine.

One long-shot proposal would be to use a procedural tool, known as a discharge petition, to force the House to vote on the Senate package. But that would require a level of support that appears out of reach on both sides of the aisle.

Democratic Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, an Air Force veteran who recently traveled to the Baltic region where National Guard troops from her state partnered with Lithuanian allies, said “it boggles my mind” that colleagues don’t understand the Russia threat.

When Johnson said the House will “work its will” rather than take up the Senate package, Houlahan said the House’s “will” is to vote for it.

“He knows better than this — that there are more than 300 of us who are willing to vote for this package,” she said.

“He is the speaker of the House,” she said. “He is not the speaker of the Republicans.”

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US aid to Ukraine hinges on House Speaker Johnson. His leadership is being tested by the far right