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Mike Johnson

Johnson treads carefully on Ukraine

The House returns today from the two-week Easter recess. For Speaker Mike Johnson, he’s immediately facing huge questions over FISA, Ukraine and Israel, among other critical topics.

The Rules Committee will mark up a modified version of FISA reform legislation today ahead of an expected floor vote this week. There’s an April 19 expiration date for the critical Section 702 program, which covers how U.S. intelligence agencies conduct surveillance on foreign targets outside the country. So House leaders are rushing to get something done this week.

On Israel, House GOP leaders are pushing a resolution bashing President Joe Biden over his handling of relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the now six-month-old war in Gaza.

But it’s new aid for Ukraine and what to do on that front where Johnson faces his biggest test — one that could cost him his job. He’s already under heavy pressure from hardline conservatives including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who spent Monday slamming the speaker.

We’re told that Johnson, at this point, isn’t likely to unveil his Ukraine aid proposal this week. The plan — which will include provisions such as the REPO Act to use seized Russian assets, as well as language overturning the Biden administration’s ban on new LNG export applications — isn’t ready to go yet. Johnson is expected to take the next several days to meet with colleagues on this issue.

Johnson could face a motion to vacate over Ukraine, so he and other House GOP leaders are proceeding gingerly — to say the least.

New normal for U.S.-Israel relations: This is a watershed moment for the Democratic Party when it comes to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

With a few outliers, Democrats seem largely comfortable with Biden’s more aggressive posture toward Netanyahu in the wake of an IDF airstrike that killed seven humanitarian aid relief workers last week. Top Democratic leaders, including senior White House officials, are also engaging more closely with members of Israel’s opposition parties. Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid met with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Ben Cardin (D-Md.) on Monday, with more meetings to follow.

“For decades it was almost impermissible politically to have any objections to the way that one of our allies conducted itself,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told us. “But now this is more like a normal relationship, where the friendship underlies all of it. But friendship does not mean that we obey each other.”

Last week, after seven World Central Kitchen aid workers were killed in the Israeli strike, Biden explicitly threatened to change U.S. policy with respect to the Gaza war if Israel didn’t take “immediate” actions to protect aid workers and enable the flow of humanitarian assistance.

Following that call, Israel opened additional humanitarian aid corridors into Gaza, and the IDF fired two officers involved in the airstrike. Democrats said this was evidence that Biden’s new approach was working.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, said Israel’s actions on humanitarian aid and a potential military operation in Rafah “are all going to matter” as Biden crafts U.S. policy moving forward.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) took it a step further, saying that Netanyahu “should depart” from his post, as should Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, of course, has already called for new elections in Israel to replace Netanyahu.

The supplemental: The shift among Democrats raises questions about whether a bill that includes unconditional Israel funding could make it through both chambers of Congress today — even with Ukraine aid as the centerpiece.

“It’s fair, at some point, if we don’t see positive change, to make decisions on what kind of aid we’re providing and what [Israel] can use it for,” Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) said.

When the Senate passed the foreign aid bill in February, just three Senate Democrats voted against it. A lot has transpired in the last two months that raises serious doubts about whether Democrats would accept another Israel package without new restrictions.

When we asked Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) about that dynamic, he responded: “It’s important that the House passes the bill the Senate passed so we don’t have to worry about that.”

“We will continue to look at things as they come down to make sure that we hold Bibi accountable without tying Israel’s hands to be able to defend themselves,” added Tester, who faces a tough reelection campaign.

One more thing: The House Republican Steering Committee is meeting tonight to decide on a replacement for Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) as chair of the Appropriations Committee. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who chairs Rules, is almost certain to be tapped for the Appropriations post.

This could force some changes at both Rules and Appropriations. Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) is likely to take over Rules, with a new member added if Cole steps off the panel. We’ll have more for you tomorrow morning.

— Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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