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Ukraine backers in House explore bypassing Johnson to secure more aid

A bipartisan group of lawmakers sat across from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week and delivered the good news — and, then, the bad.

The good news, recalled Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), was that if the House were to vote on sending additional aid to Kyiv, “it would pass overwhelmingly.” The bad news, he said, was that there might not be a vote at all.

“We have to get to the floor,” Crow said he and others explained to Zelensky, “and that’s the challenge.”

Ukraine’s supporters on both sides of the fractured House are exploring how they could force a vote to unlock billions of dollars in aid for Kyiv, potentially by sidestepping Republican leaders who have refused to act on a measure that funds several national security imperatives.

The Senate’s passage this week of a $95 billion package, which includes money for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and other U.S. allies, has posed an enormous dilemma for House Speaker Mike Johnson, whose tenuous grip on his position is under threat from a rebellious subset of the GOP caucus bitterly opposed to any further spending on the war. Johnson (R-La.) has rejected the Senate bill outright but to date has offered little clarity on the path forward.

The situation is complicated by a confluence of factors, not the least of which for Johnson and fellow Republicans is the imposing influence of former president Donald Trump. He has opposed Ukraine funding and a bipartisan compromise on immigration policy initially proposed by Republicans as a quid pro quo.

House proponents of the Senate bill also face a growing challenge from leftist Democrats who say they can’t support continued help for Israel after months of civilian bloodshed in Gaza.

The standoff has rankled lawmakers from both parties who say that Ukraine, faced with dwindling weapons stocks, is running out of time, and it’s driven some in the House to hunt for a novel solution that would capitalize on what they say is majority support for Zelensky’s government.

During a Republican conference meeting this week, Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.), who was part of the delegation to Kyiv, implored his colleagues to stop making Ukraine funding so “complicated,” reiterating a long-standing argument that U.S. assistance was vital to prevent Russia from widening its war beyond Ukraine’s borders, people who attended the closed gathering said.

Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), who sits on three of the House national security committees, asked during the meeting if Republican leadership would consider stripping billions of dollars in humanitarian aid from the Senate bill and attaching a Republican measure to overhaul border policy, to make the bill more palatable. Johnson appeared to be taking notes, attendees said.

Democrats, meanwhile, are evaluating whether they could force a vote on the Senate bill through a procedure known as a discharge petition, which requires 218 signatures. Doing so would require only four Republicans to sign on once newly elected Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.) is sworn in later this month, but there is concern that more liberal members opposed to funding Israel could pull their signatures, senior Democratic aides said.

“The question is, if I lose them, how many Rs do I have to pick up?” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), meaning Republicans. “And what do I have to sacrifice to get that?”

Moderate Republicans have indicated they are unwilling, at least for now, to band with Democrats and force a vote. “Let’s get some more momentum before we talk about hypotheticals,” said Rep. Zachary Nunn (R-Iowa), who also was among the lawmakers to meet with Zelensky.

But while some in the GOP have privately derided Johnson as “indecisive” or too green to lead effectively, others say he simply has a tendency to seek feedback from across his conference before deciding how to proceed on difficult issues. His allies appear willing to give him time to maneuver.

“The leadership is going to determine what path goes forward. That’s their role. It’s not mine,” said Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), who a year ago said he remained “steadfast in supporting Ukraine’s fierce fight to maintain its independence” while calling for greater accountability of the aid money. Asked Wednesday whether he still thinks supporting Ukraine is important, Wittman said, “I support our speaker.”

Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, also defended Johnson, saying the speaker “has made it very clear that he supports Ukraine funding and Israel funding and then the Asia Pacific portion of the national security package.” Republicans “will get it done,” Turner said, adding that he didn’t want to speculate how.

Johnson said this week that House Republicans “will address the issues” contained in the Senate’s national security bill and that the process would begin “in earnest right now.” He also has sought a meeting with President Biden to negotiate a border security policy that could be attached to the foreign aid — a suggestion that has left Democrats and the administration exasperated after bipartisan Senate negotiations yielded a conservative border deal that Republicans then quashed.

Republicans had framed the immigration policy overhaul as a prerequisite for their support of the larger national security package and Ukraine aid specifically. After Trump voiced his opposition to the bipartisan plan, a wave of Republican lawmakers turned against it. GOP leaders soon concluded the deal didn’t go far enough to rein in illegal migration, and the Senate then passed its national security bill without the border policy provisions.

Ultraconservatives in the House have made it extremely difficult for Johnson to propose a path forward without facing internal backlash. He was plucked from relative obscurity to corral the unruly conference after his predecessor as speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), was deposed for working with Democrats to pass other spending measures. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a Trump surrogate, has said she would try to remove Johnson from his speakership if he seeks a vote on Ukraine funding.

“He’s got options, but they’re not going to happen this week,” said a Republican lawmaker familiar with Johnson’s thinking who, like some others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to be discuss internal talks. “He’s going to handle it in his time” but would not be “the guy that puts the Senate bill on the floor” for a vote.

The process faces yet another challenge in the looming prospect of a government shutdown, which could happen as soon as March 1 unless Congress agrees on a far larger spending package to fund the federal government. The House, which adjourned Thursday until the end of February, will have just two days to avert a shutdown when they return.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told reporters this week that “the overwhelming majority” of Democrats are prepared to support the Senate national security bill. “We’re not the problem,” he said, chastising the Trump loyalists who’ve boxed in the speaker.

But progressive Democrats say that they are not, in fact, ready to do so.

“It’s unconscionable, to me, to be giving the Israeli government … any more money,” said freshman Rep. Delia C. Ramirez (D-Ill.), citing the staggering toll of some 30,000 dead in Gaza, 2 million others displaced, and “children who are eating grass to stay alive.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said that “some number of people” will not vote for a bill “without any conditions or any accountability” to pressure Israel to exercise restraint and abide by international law.

That the Senate bill contains money for humanitarian aid to help those in Gaza was unconvincing and ironic, Ramirez added, a sentiment echoed by other progressives. “So as Netanyahu’s government bombs children, they might be getting something to eat for the first time that week?” Ramirez asked rhetorically, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Johnson has hinted at the possibility of breaking apart the Senate package to vote piecemeal on the foreign aid provisions. Many Republicans have indicated they would prefer to vote on each issue individually rather than as a package it together, a course that might prove more palatable to some Democrats as well.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solver Caucus, said that a handful of lawmakers will soon propose a “two-party solution.” It’s unclear how their plan could take shape or when they may unveil it.

“This whole situation is difficult,” said Jayapal. “There’s no question about it.”

Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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