Johnson’s Plan B for Ukraine leaves unanswered questions

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President Mike Johnson’s (R-La.) Plan B for Ukraine aid has raised as many questions as it answers.

A speaker told Republican senators last week that he intends to send them legislation providing new military funding for kyiv, after the House considers a separate spending package to avoid a government shutdown on March 22.

And in a later interview with Politico, Johnson indicated that he plans to advance that proposal with a procedural tool that will require the support of a substantial number of Democrats. He also floated the idea of ​​separating aid to Ukraine from a bill that would provide more military aid to Israel.

The vague outline of a strategy has created much uncertainty about the specific path he intends to take, including how Johnson plans to incorporate the tougher border security measures he previously demanded into a national security supplement; how he intends to win Democratic support for a proposal that deviates from the Senate-approved foreign aid package they have insisted on; and how he will avoid a revolt by conservatives (many of them opposed to more aid to Ukraine, particularly without stronger border policies) if he rejects their demands.

Johnson suggested that several of those details remain up in the air Friday.

“We are looking at all options on all issues on the table, and we are simply not ready to make a statement on this yet,” Johnson said Friday when asked if he was considering aid legislation for Ukraine that lacks border security. .

But faced with the prospect of moving aid to kyiv without policies to address the situation on the US southern border, Johnson reiterated his old argument that border security must be the top priority.

“I believe, and the American people believe, that we have to secure our own border as a top priority, and I think that is a sentiment that the vast majority of the people of the country expect and deserve. And we are going to continue pushing to achieve it,” he told reporters.

The months-long stalemate, combined with the worsening situation for Ukraine’s defensive forces, has frustrated Kiev supporters in both parties, who wonder when Johnson will finally reach a decision.

“The big unanswered question right now is that Mike Johnson keeps telling everyone that he’s going to get help for Ukraine and he’s going to get help for Israel. No one has any idea how,” Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said before Johnson’s comments to senators and Politico.

“So the big unanswered question is what is their plan,” he continued. “And I do not know”.

The debate highlights the dilemma Johnson and other Republican leaders find themselves in as they wrestle with a strategy to help Ukraine repel invading forces from Russia.

On the one hand, Johnson says he wants to bolster support for Ukraine’s beleaguered military, which has lost ground to Russia in recent weeks and is running out of ammunition. During the House GOP retreat in West Virginia last week, the president said, “I understand the timeline and I understand the need for the urgency of the funding.”

On the other hand, the Speaker is being careful not to antagonize conservatives at his own conference, who fear sending billions more dollars to kyiv, particularly if Congress does not simultaneously act to strengthen security on the U.S.-U.S. border. Mexico.

Hanging over him is the constant threat of a motion to take the gavel away from Johnson, which led to the overthrow of his predecessor.

“The ridiculous nature of this place is: If you introduced the bills individually, I think they would pass,” said Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.). “But our Speaker is between a rock and a hard place. I mean, if he brings them in individually, he could cost him his job.”

In a delicate effort to thread the needle, Johnson told Senate Republicans on Wednesday that he intends to modify his foreign aid package, which provides roughly $60 billion to Ukraine, turning the assistance into a loan program rather than a grant. That proposal, at least in theory, would ease some of the burden on American taxpayers, and has the added benefit of being championed by former President Trump, who had previously helped kill a Senate package that combined foreign aid with domestic border security.

Johnson, addressing senators, also promoted the idea of ​​paying for aid to Ukraine by seizing and liquidating Russian assets seized around the world, an idea proposed by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), Speaker of the House of Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs Committee that is pushing hard for more aid for Ukraine.

Asked in West Virginia whether Johnson had committed to introducing a Ukraine aid bill, McCaul declined to discuss personal conversations but said, “I think he will,” noting it would be after the appropriations process. wraps up.

But it remains unclear how Republican leaders plan to cobble together the various pieces and how they intend to pass them in a bitterly divided House.

Johnson suggested Friday that he will continue to push for tighter border security as part of the broader national security debate.

“We always prioritize border security. That is a very important part of the equation and the conversation, and I have been consistent in that from day one,” he said.

But the border provisions he has demanded have been roundly rejected by Democrats, the same Democrats he would need to pass the bill through the procedural maneuver, called a suspension calendar, that he is considering to pass the legislation. That process would allow Republican leaders to bypass any opposition from conservatives, but would also require a two-thirds majority to send the package to the Senate, a bar impossible to reach without significant Democratic participation.

“I think it’s a standalone thing and I suspect it will have to be put on hold,” Johnson said. he told politician.

By saying “independent,” Johnson was stipulating that he does not want to attach the foreign aid provisions to the “minibus” spending bill that Congress is about to consider this week to avoid a government shutdown, or any other legislation that must be approved this week. year, a leadership aide told The Hill.

But he has not ruled out splitting the various parts of the foreign aid package into separate bills, to receive separate votes, according to the leadership adviser. House Republicans have already voted twice on the Israel component (the first passed and the second did not), but the idea went nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate as lawmakers push to consider all the components of the supplemental national security plan in a single package.

However, the contributor noted that components of the foreign aid legislation are still being worked out with members and there is no guarantee anything can be moved forward.

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on Johnson to act.

President Biden used a public appearance with Johnson on Friday to implore the president to approve assistance for Kiev, and during the Friends of Ireland luncheon on Capitol Hill he asked Congress to send the Senate’s national security supplement to the White House.

“I trust that the vast majority — and excuse me for saying this — but I believe that a vast majority of members of Congress are willing to do their part. And I continue to urge everyone in this room to stand up to Vladimir Putin. He’s a bully,” Biden said, drawing applause from those in the room, including Johnson, who was sitting a few feet away.

Leo Varadkar, the taoiseach of Ireland, echoed that call, declaring that “Ukraine must not fall, and together we must support Ukraine for as long as necessary.”

Johnson is also competing against a pair of discharge petitions that are gathering signatures in an attempt to force a vote on aid to kyiv.

A discharge petition, led by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), would bypass leadership and bring the Senate’s foreign aid bill to the floor. The other, led by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), would trigger a vote on his national security supplement that includes aid to Ukraine and Israel as well as border security provisions.

However, neither has garnered enough support to bypass the leadership, leaving all power in Johnson’s hands as he grapples with how to approach the thorny issue of aid to Ukraine.

Lawmakers are waiting (and watching closely) for his next move.

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