Feb 13, 2024 - Politics & Policy

House's Ukraine showdown escalates with calls to bypass Johnson

Mike Johnson

House Speaker MIke Johnson (center). Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The Senate's overwhelming passage of a $95 billion foreign aid package Tuesday morning has backed House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) into a corner.

Why it matters: Johnson is betting that his GOP members won't go rogue and help Democrats force a floor vote on the aid bill, which would be a dramatic and embarrassing blow to his speakership.

The big picture: While Johnson's obstinance on Ukraine has the full support of former President Trump and his allies, the inexperienced House speaker is facing pressure everywhere else he turns.

What they're saying: "There's no question that a Senate bill put on the floor in the House of Representatives would pass. ... The speaker knows that," President Biden said in remarks Tuesday at the White House.

  • "We've heard all kinds of rumors about whether the House supports Ukraine or doesn't. It seems to me that the easy way to solve that would be to vote," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a staunch Ukraine supporter, told Politico.
  • Even Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), an anti-Ukraine member of the House Freedom Caucus, admitted Tuesday: "If it were to get to the floor, it would pass — let's just be frank about that."

What we're watching: House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) vowed Tuesday to "use every available legislative tool" to pass funding for Ukraine, Israel and Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

  • The statement was widely viewed as a reference to a "discharge petition," a once-obscure method of allowing 218 members — a bipartisan majority — to circumvent the speaker and force a House vote.
  • Jeffries declined to disclose his strategy at a press conference, but he claimed there are "more than 300 bipartisan votes" in the House for the foreign aid package.
  • Johnson, who preemptively rejected the Senate's foreign aid package in protest of its lack of border security measures, told reporters Tuesday that he would "certainly oppose" a discharge petition.

Between the lines: GOP hardliners repeatedly have defied Johnson over the last several months, but the appetite for rebellion among the moderate Republicans likely to support Ukraine aid remains untested.

  • As the Government Affairs Institute's Matt Glassman points out in a useful thread: "The gap between 'what will you vote for if forced to vote' and 'what will you demand gets voted on' is huge."
  • "This is what makes discharge so hard. ... The problem is [the] cost of undermining the leadership agenda is so high that little rises to that level for most members," Glassman said — especially on an issue like Ukraine aid, which Trump and the GOP base vocally oppose.

The intrigue: When he became speaker, Johnson vowed not to let Russia prevail in Ukraine.

  • A discharge petition could allow Johnson to play both sides — seeing the House pass a priority he claims to support while insulating him from the political blowback.

The bottom line: "We have to get this done," House Intelligence Chair Mike Turner (R-Ohio) told Politico. "This is no longer an issue of, 'When do we support Ukraine?' If we do not move, this will be abandoning Ukraine."

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