December is usually a difficult month in Washington. There’s almost always some drama over a possible government shutdown. The holidays and new year are looming. Lawmakers want to get home.
But there’s another dynamic at play this year: Nearly every top national leader finds themselves boxed in on critically important issues that will have huge personal and political implications over the next few weeks and months.
President Joe Biden: Biden faces global crises everywhere he looks. The president has led the Western coalition supporting Ukraine against the bloody Russian invasion, but more than 20 months into the war, U.S. support is waning, especially among Republicans. Now the White House is locked in a brutal, bare-knuckles political negotiation — U.S.-Mexico border security in exchange for Ukraine aid.
Biden knows it would probably help him politically to address the migrant crisis. At the same time, progressives and Hispanic groups are pressuring him to reject what they see as extreme Republican demands on immigration policy.
Biden’s embrace of Israel since the Oct. 7 terror attacks and subsequent war with Hamas has dismayed many progressives — especially young people — just as the president kicks off his reelection run. Muslim voters, another important demographic in key states like Michigan, are turning against Biden as well. The White House, from Biden on down, is pressuring Israel on how it’s conducting its military campaign in Gaza.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: The Senate GOP leader desperately wants Congress to approve more Ukraine aid.
But McConnell’s decision to embrace conservatives’ demands for border policy changes as a condition for a massive Ukraine funding package was a huge risk. It essentially tied the fate of one of his biggest priorities to Congress’ ability to reach an agreement on something that lawmakers haven’t been able to resolve for decades — immigration and the border.
To be sure, McConnell is reflecting the reality that Republicans nationally are souring on Ukraine. So, in theory, the border overhaul would sweeten the deal for conservatives.
But here’s the problem: Many of the same Republicans who are on the “H.R. 2 or bust” train also oppose any more Ukraine money. And insisting on border policies that can never get Democratic support may lead to nothing passing.
And all of this could be for naught anyway, with Speaker Mike Johnson continuing to signal that he won’t put a bipartisan border-Ukraine-Israel-Taiwan bill on the floor. Plus, what does McConnell do if there’s no border deal by Christmas but Ukraine hangs in the balance?
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer: Like McConnell, Schumer is a true believer in the value of aiding democratic allies under threat from autocrats. Schumer has been especially vocal on the need to help Israel.
But Senate Republicans have significant leverage in this debate — and Schumer knows it. Look no further than the GOP’s vow to defeat a procedural motion on the foreign aid package later today. The 60-vote threshold gives Republicans a big say in what this bill looks like. And they’re taking advantage of that by pressing for border policy changes.
Schumer also has a handful of red-state Democrats up for reelection next year. They most certainly have a major interest in addressing the border issues too and could pressure Schumer to accept some GOP demands.
Speaker Mike Johnson: Johnson, who recently started getting top-level security briefings, has changed his tune on Ukraine. The Louisiana Republican voted against aid to Kyiv as a rank-and-file member, although now he’s positioned himself as a Ukraine supporter.
Yet Johnson has little room to maneuver. Johnson won’t agree to sending more money to help Ukraine fight off Russia without “transformative” changes to border policy. Johnson continues to echo arguments made by members of his conference who oppose more Ukraine funding.
Johnson also seems unable to make his mind up on extending FISA authority. The speaker told House negotiators he won’t accept a short-term extension in the must-pass NDAA bill this month, despite saying he’d do just that last week. Johnson is stuck between the Republicans in his conference who want to overhaul FISA dramatically and those who just want to tweak it.
And when it comes to Israel, Johnson truly has no way out. The Louisiana Republican declared any Israel aid package needs to be offset, putting himself crosswise with Democrats, the White House and most Senate Republicans. Eventually, Johnson may be confronted with having to pass Israel aid without offsets. And then Johnson is in trouble with conservatives.
Clarification: Johnson said Tuesday that House Republicans were getting a briefing from National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. We repeated this in the PM edition. Sullivan, though, was not among the briefers.
— John Bresnahan, Andrew Desiderio and Jake Sherman