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Johnson’s Ukraine dilemma

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Johnson and Ukraine: In public and private over the last few weeks, Speaker Mike Johnson has told his lieutenants in the House Republican leadership that he intends to put a bill on the floor to send new U.S. aid to Ukraine.

Just on Friday, after the House cleared the $1.2 trillion FY2024 minibus spending package, Johnson declared “We will also take the necessary steps to address the supplemental funding request,” meaning the Senate-passed $60 billion Ukraine aid proposal. This comes as Ukrainian officials say they’re running out of ammunition — especially U.S.-supplied weapons — to fend off the renewed Russian onslaught.

What Johnson hasn’t said is how he intends to do that.

The mystery has roiled the House Republican leadership, where even Johnson’s close colleagues have limited insight into the Louisiana Republican’s thinking, what he’s planning and when he’s planning to do it.

But we spent a chunk of Monday trying to discern what options might be available to Johnson and what path he may take.

Officially, Team Johnson’s position is that the House GOP leadership is spending the recess having conversations with their members on the issue and they’ll return with a plan in early April. But here’s what the current thinking is across the leadership and senior member ranks:

1) The Senate bill. This is essentially a non-starter in the House GOP, so don’t expect the House to take it up. Regardless of what’s actually in the Senate bill, Johnson has already trashed the package. This comes despite the fact that it got 70 votes in the Senate and both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic leaders are publicly pressuring him to move on it.

2) His own plan. Johnson could take the Senate bill and tweak it. Senior House Republican sources tell us that whatever the House does has to closely mirror what the Senate did. It has to be similar enough that it can pass the Senate without triggering a back-and-forth between the two chambers. Perhaps that means tweaks to the way the aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan is structured. Maybe Johnson borrows the Lend-Lease formula for weapons sales to these critical U.S. allies. The initial U.S. aid package to Ukraine in 2022 included a Lend-Lease program that expired last year. Johnson has discussed linking Ukraine aid to overturning some of President Joe Biden’s energy policies, including the ban on new LNG export approvals.

The big question under this scenario is how Johnson would structure any votes. Does he split Israel from Ukraine and Taiwan? To pass Israel aid, Johnson would need humanitarian provisions for Palestinians in Gaza. Could the House Republican Conference stomach that?

3) Fitzpatrick’s bill. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) has been gathering signatures for a petition to discharge a bipartisan proposal that includes Ukraine funding. This plan is well thought out but also includes some border-security provisions that will alienate Democrats, including reinstatement of the “Remain in Mexico” policy for asylum seekers. Some backers of this plan — there are 16 signatories thus far — say that it’s the only proposal that can pass Republican muster in the House. Perhaps Johnson borrows elements of this proposal for his own bill?

4) Discharge petition. There are two discharge petitions — the aforementioned Fitzpatrick effort and a House Democratic plan to bring the Senate bill to the floor. The Democrats’ petition has a whopping 191 signatures. All are Democrats except for the now former Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.). Johnson could take the easy way out and just set rank-and-file Republicans free to sign one of these.

This would, however, be an abdication of his control of the floor. Willingly handing such control over to the minority is an effective admission that you can’t manage the House.

But we are in uncharted territory here. Johnson has a two-vote cushion — soon to be one vote — and a divided conference, so he has to govern far differently than previous GOP speakers.

Then there’s the obvious question — will House Republican critics move against him if he green-lights Ukraine aid? The answer is probably yes. Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has also offered a motion to vacate the chair following the House vote on the minibus package. Moving on a Ukraine aid bill is certain to set off conservatives.

Senior House Democratic sources tell us that the minority would help him remain speaker under this scenario — if Johnson accepts that support.

But we really doubt that it’s sustainable to remain as a Republican speaker propped up by Democrats.

— Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan

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