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Speaker Mike Johnson

Ukraine-skeptical Republicans are about to get an earful about ‘REPO’

Speaker Mike Johnson and his leadership team know they may need to get creative in order to have any hope of getting a Ukraine aid package to President Joe Biden’s desk — and possibly saving Johnson’s job.

With House Republicans largely opposing new aid for Kyiv — especially if new border-security provisions don’t ride alongside it — GOP leaders have been searching for ways to sell an aid package to the Ukraine skeptics in their party. At the very least, party leaders want to minimize the blowback they’ll inevitably face from hardline conservatives.

A centerpiece of that effort is likely to be the Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity for Ukrainians Act — or REPO, for short.

The legislation cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee nearly unanimously in January, and it’s a key component of Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick’s (R-Pa.) bipartisan, slimmed-down foreign aid and border security package.

But what does it actually do?

The bill gives Biden the authority to confiscate frozen Russian assets and use them to pay for Ukraine’s reconstruction efforts. All previous U.S. aid packages for Ukraine have included economic and humanitarian assistance for Kyiv, in addition to the military portion. So in theory, the REPO Act would lessen the financial burden on U.S. taxpayers.

“We believe that it would probably get us some more votes [in the House],” Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), who co-authored the REPO Act with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), told us.

Seizing a nation’s central bank assets in this manner would be unprecedented. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the only “no” vote in the Foreign Relations Committee, said it would be an act of “economic war” against Russia. Other opponents worry about setting a precedent of violating sovereign immunity, and that it could prompt a tit-for-tat with Moscow.

So it wasn’t easy to get the Biden administration — and even European nations — on board with this plan when Risch and Whitehouse first unveiled it. But the Biden administration now supports it, as do many European governments, which have also moved to freeze Russian assets. The overwhelming majority of those Russian assets are held in Europe, in fact.

All told, a multinational effort on this could yield tens of billions of dollars for Ukraine, which has suffered incalculable damages at the hands of the Russian military. Lawmakers believe the United States should take the lead here, prompting other countries to follow suit.

“The thing just makes sense,” Risch added. “Regardless of how you feel about Ukraine, it’s hard to argue against this bill. It really is.”

Trump’s “loan” idea: House Republicans are also talking about a plan floated by former President Donald Trump — structuring U.S. aid to Kyiv as a forgivable loan with favorable terms and no set date for repayment.

The initial 2022 U.S. aid program for Ukraine included a “Lend-Lease” portion similar to what the United States did for England and other allies in World War II. This program expired last year.

This new plan, however, is more of a gimmick intended to help Republicans message the issue to their base. First, the vast majority of any new aid package would be spent in the United States anyway. Second, calling it a “loan” doesn’t really change anything about how the money is disbursed.

Not all Republicans are on board with this idea, however. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been publicly urging Johnson to bring up the Senate-passed foreign aid package, has categorically dismissed the proposal. Each time he’s been asked about it, McConnell has noted that the best and quickest way to deliver badly needed aid to Ukraine is for Johnson to put the Senate bill on the floor for a vote.

Democrats and pro-Ukraine Republicans tell us they’re comfortable with whatever formula Johnson comes up with to get the requisite votes — as long as it doesn’t include poison pills. But if Johnson can’t pass his own plan, it’s safe to expect that McConnell and others will double down on their calls for the House to pass the Senate package.

— Andrew Desiderio

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