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Johnson and Biden

The Johnson-Biden tango

President Joe Biden and Speaker Mike Johnson both say they’d be happy to meet with the other. But so far, it’s not happening, a sign of just how bitter the partisanship has become around Ukraine, border security and impeachment as the 2024 election creeps closer.

“Sure, I’d be happy to meet with [Johnson] if he has anything to say,” Biden told reporters Monday.

Johnson would have something to say. But it might not be what Biden wants to hear.

The president hammered Johnson and House Republicans for refusing to take up a Senate-passed foreign aid package that includes tens of billions of dollars for Ukraine. The death Friday of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in an Arctic prison and recent Ukrainian battlefield reverses have provoked further recriminations from top administration officials and Hill Democrats over House GOP inaction.

“Look, the way they’re walking away from the threat of Russia, the way they’re walking away from NATO, the way they’re walking away from meeting our obligations, it’s just shocking,” Biden added. “I mean, they’re wild. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Several hours later, Johnson’s office countered, noting the speaker has already sought a one-on-one with Biden only to be shut out by the White House. Here’s Raj Shah, Johnson’s deputy chief of staff for communications:

The back-and-forth between Biden and Johnson comes at an extraordinarily fraught moment for each man even beyond the election-year pressure:

House Republicans plan to interview James Biden, the president’s brother, on Wednesday as part of their presidential impeachment probe. Presidential son Hunter Biden’s interview is next week.

House GOP leaders pushed through an impeachment resolution against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and that Senate trial will begin when Congress returns from recess at the end of the month.

The FY2024 spending bills still haven’t been passed, and Johnson — who is getting criticism from all sides of his conference — is facing growing pressure from GOP hardliners to provoke a government shutdown starting March 1. And while Biden’s poll numbers remain terrible, Johnson’s wildly dysfunctional majority is down to a mere two seats.

Of course, the two will see each other at the State of the Union address on March 7 — that is if the government isn’t shut down.

Johnson would go into any meeting with Biden at a serious disadvantage politically. House Democrats and the Senate all support more Ukraine funding. While immigration and the border crisis have been major problems for Biden throughout his presidency, it was opposition from Johnson — spurred on by former President Donald Trump — that helped sink the Senate’s bipartisan border security deal.

The Ukraine question: One of the biggest mysteries is where Johnson stands on Ukraine now that he’s received the highest-level classified briefings as speaker. Johnson previously voted against Ukraine aid as a rank-and-file member. He’s also a close ally of Trump, the driving force behind rising anti-Ukraine sentiment in the GOP.

Democrats and pro-Ukraine Republicans note that Johnson has spoken positively about Ukraine and the need to push back against Russia’s growing threat to NATO. Senate Republicans tell us the speaker has been strong on the issue during their private meetings. And his statement on Navalny’s death seemed to indicate a desire to take action.

“Mike, at his default, is a peace through strength person,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who’s urging Johnson to put a slimmed-down bipartisan aid package on the floor, told us in Munich.

At the same time, Johnson has refused to make it a priority the same way his Senate counterpart Mitch McConnell has, leading to criticism from Democrats that Johnson is unable or unwilling to take action on the issue.

“The time for words and platitudes is over,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said in an interview. “We’ve run out of time.”

This dynamic was highlighted in Munich, where U.S. lawmakers met with dozens of foreign leaders.

“The urgency of the moment, the epic dysfunction of the House of Representatives has drawn attention to the question of — can they legislate in the most basic of ways?” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said.

Of course, Johnson has to deal with a potential motion to vacate from hardline conservatives over Ukraine that could cost him his job. Fitzpatrick, whose bill includes lethal foreign aid only and a modest border security fix, is urging Democrats to consider saving Johnson’s speakership if that happens. Fitzpatrick said that could be the deciding factor for whether the United States abandons Ukraine.

“We need our Democrat colleagues to help us out here,” Fitzpatrick said. “We can’t be punishing anybody who puts a two-party bill on the floor to save America and the world from existential threats.”

— John Bresnahan, Jake Sherman and Andrew Desiderio

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