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Mike Johnson

Why Ukraine aid may be dead — and what can save it

Overnight news: Former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.) handily defeated Republican Mazi Pilip in a special election on Long Island to replace the expelled GOP Rep. George Santos. This is a Democratic pickup, which means the House Republicans’ majority will further shrink to 219-213 with three vacancies. That’s a two-vote edge. Much more on that below.

Also: The House impeached DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas Tuesday night on a party-line vote, 214-213. This is the first time in nearly 150 years that the House has voted to oust a Cabinet official.

The Senate will start the trial for Mayorkas when the chamber returns from the Presidents Day recess. Senate President Pro Tempore Patty Murray will oversee the proceedings. Remember: No other business can happen on the Senate floor during an impeachment trial.

Now back to our regular programming: The Senate’s $95 billion Israel-Ukraine-Taiwan foreign aid bill is as good as dead. We’re going to explain to you why we think this. But if by some miracle it does get through the House — and that’s a big if — it will be in a form unpalatable for the Senate and President Joe Biden.

OK, wait a second. Everyone knows there are legislative maneuvers that the minority can employ to force a House vote on the Senate-passed legislation. We’ll get to those. But we want to lay out to you why we think this will be very tricky here.

1) Majority of majority. The last time the full House voted on Ukraine aid, just 107 Republicans voted to send a paltry $300 million to Kyiv. This vote total is short of the majority of the majority. Of course, the so-called “Hastert Rule” — horrifically named, we know — isn’t binding. But it is a standard that most Republican speakers follow to ensure that they don’t lose control of their conference.

We’ve heard arguments from some House GOP leadership aides that there are in fact more than 107 Republicans who support Ukraine aid but simply won’t vote for it. This isn’t a terribly compelling argument either. If you secretly support something but don’t tell anyone when asked, that doesn’t count.

In addition to having a bunch of GOP lawmakers who doubt the wisdom of sending Ukraine money, there are a whole host of Republicans — 20 or so — who want to offset all foreign aid spending. House Democrats will undoubtedly reject that, as they have before.

Johnson wants — or better yet, needs — at least 111 Republicans who are willing to vote “Yes” for this $95 billion package. Right now he isn’t anywhere close to that.

Johnson doesn’t seem in a rush to deal with this problem either. The speaker told us Tuesday that he is focused on averting a government shutdown on March 1 and March 8. He said the House needs time to “process” the Senate’s package.

2) Border security. There’s already discussion in the House Republican Conference about attaching some border provisions to the Senate package and then sending that back. Several lawmakers and aides told us that the Republican leadership is considering attaching elements of H.R. 2, the House GOP’s hardline border security bill.

If Republicans were smart, they’d take provisions that would jam the Democratic Senate — Remain in Mexico, for example — and insert it into the Senate-passed package.

But the House Republican Conference is never interested in incremental progress. So any border proposal that somehow gets through the House will be loaded to the brim with conservative policies, rendering it dead in the Senate. Former President Donald Trump is also hugely influential here.

3) Floor jam. The House is in for just three more days this week. Members then leave until Feb. 28, giving them only three days to avoid a government shutdown when they return. There is precious little time, will or desire to consider foreign aid funding given those constraints.

4) An inexperienced speaker. Johnson has now been speaker for 112 days. He’s learning on the fly. One of Johnson’s weaknesses is that he seems to think that his members don’t want to be led. They do. They want clear guidance on what the speaker thinks should be done on legislation. Johnson hasn’t provided that and doesn’t seem interested in doing so.

What can save it: There are two procedural longshots that could help save aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

The discharge petition: The discharge petition allows 218 members of the House to bring a bill to the floor around the leadership’s back. There’s already one discharge petition that’s ready for prime time and it has 213 signatures — all Democrats. The petition was filed May 17, 2023, so it’s ripe. And it’s written to allow the minority to drop in any bill they want.

However, a bunch of House Democrats will drop off of this petition because of opposition to funding Israel. So they’ll need Republicans, potentially dozens, to reach 218.

There’s a lot of waiting with a discharge petition. The petition can only be brought to the floor on certain days, for example. It works — rarely — and is also very inefficient. We don’t think it will work here.

Defeating the previous question: The quicker option for Ukraine-aid supporters is defeating a previous question, or in Hill parlance, a PQ.

Here’s how that would go: Every time the House Republican leadership brings a bill to the floor under a rule, there’s a vote on “moving the previous question.” If that vote is defeated, the Democrat managing debate can amend the rule and effectively bring up any bill they want.

There could be procedural hurdles here. For example, any bill the minority brings up would have to be germane. But Ukraine supporters can overturn that ruling with 218 votes.

The main thing to understand here is that if there are 218 supporters of Ukraine aid and they stick together, they can get this thing passed.

Republicans are going to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt so he can devise a plan. But that leeway won’t last forever.

— Jake Sherman

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