5 questions on how Speaker Johnson could try to thread a needle on Ukraine aid

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is vowing to take up Ukraine aid as the first act of business when Congress returns to Capitol Hill next week after a long holiday break. But how he plans to proceed remains a gripping mystery in Washington.

Conservatives in the Republican conference are threatening to oppose any new military funding for Kyiv, citing the impact on deficits and the need to focus more intently on domestic problems, particularly at the southern border.

Democrats, whose support is crucial to the success of Ukraine aid, are promising to oppose any package that includes the tougher border security provisions GOP leaders are demanding. 

And Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) is dangling a motion to vacate over the whole debate, all but promising that if Johnson puts a Ukraine bill on the floor, it would trigger a vote to remove him from power. 

Standing in the background is not only former President Trump, the Republican standard-bearer who has opposed more Ukraine aid, but also foreign allies who are beseeching Johnson to move quickly on another round of military help. A failure to do so, they’ve warned, would threaten Ukraine’s sovereignty and encourage Russian President Vladimir Putin to continue his imperial expansion into other parts of Europe.

The cacophony of voices has presented the Speaker with no easy choices as he weighs a strategy for getting Ukraine aid to President Biden’s desk against the wishes of the rowdy critics in his own party.

Here are five outstanding questions heading into the debate. 

What changes are in store? 

The Senate passed a $95 billion foreign aid package in February, combining military assistance for Ukraine, Israel and Indo-Pacific allies with humanitarian aid for Gaza and other hot spots around the globe. But Johnson has rejected that proposal, vowing instead to move a more conservative House alternative and send it back to the upper chamber.

In recent weeks, the Speaker has outlined a few of his favored “innovations,” as he called them recently, which include a proposal to use seized Russian assets to help offset Ukraine’s defense costs and another to restructure the Ukraine aid so that at least part of the funding takes the form of a loan.

“Even President Trump has talked about the loan concept where … we’re not just giving foreign aid, we are setting up … our relationship where they can provide it back to us when the time is right,” Johnson said in an interview Sunday with Fox News.

Johnson has also insisted that any new help for Ukraine be accompanied by tougher security measures at the U.S.-Mexico border, although he previously rejected a bipartisan Senate bill that combined the two issues.

Most recently, Johnson has floated the idea of attaching language to repeal the Biden administration’s freeze on new permits for liquified natural gas exports — essentially leveraging his support for Ukraine aid in return for a scaling back of White House climate change policies that are anathema to Republicans.

“We want to unleash American energy,” Johnson told Fox News. “We want to have natural gas exports that will help unfund Vladimir Putin’s war effort there.”

1 package, or more? 

The Senate bill arrived in the House as one large package, but it remains unclear if Johnson intends to send the House version back in a similar form. 

In an interview with Politico last month, Johnson said he is weighing the possibility of splitting the Senate legislation into separate pieces to be voted on individually. That concept could have strategic advantages, empowering GOP leaders, for example, to make good on their promise to move border security provisions without having the explosive immigration issue be an impediment to the foreign aid at the center of the debate.

A piecemeal approach would also allow opponents of the various provisions in both parties — liberals wary of military aid to Israel, for instance, and conservatives opposed to Ukraine assistance — the opportunity to vote against those components even as party leaders secured their passage with a bipartisan coalition of more centrist lawmakers.

Yet there are risks to that strategy, as well, since separating the various pieces offers fewer assurances that all of them will get votes, let alone pass, in both chambers.

As a cautionary tale, House Republicans have already staged two attempts to adopt Israel aid as a stand-alone bill. Only one of them passed the House, and both were dead on arrival in the Senate, where the majority Democrats feared the loss of the Israel “sweetener” would undermine the fate of the Ukraine aid.

How will it come to the floor?

The procedural mechanics of the House are as tedious as they are esoteric, but how Johnson chooses to bring Ukraine aid to the floor will likely determine the ultimate success of the legislation and what policies it contains.

If the Speaker opts to go through regular order, by proposing a rule to govern the debate, it lends conservative critics the chance to block the legislation before it receives a vote — first in the Rules Committee and later on the chamber floor.

For that reason, Johnson has sidestepped his right flank on major bipartisan legislation by putting those bills on the suspension calendar — a tool that precludes the need for a rule but requires a two-thirds majority for passage.

Johnson told Politico last month that he intends to use the suspension calendar for Ukraine aid. But that strategy raises the immediate question of how he plans to win over scores of Democrats while also pushing conservative provisions — such as tougher border security and a rollback of Biden’s climate agenda — that they oppose.

Johnson over the weekend hinted at one potential compromise, suggesting Republicans might be willing to move Ukraine aid without border security measures as long as Biden agreed to take more aggressive executive steps to curb the influx of migrants.

“We’re still trying to force the president to use his executive authority, and most of the American people know that he has that authority,” he told Fox News. 

Is doing nothing an option?

A major barrier to Ukraine aid — one that’s contributed to the months-long impasse — is the simple fact that it’s not a must-pass bill in the mold of something like government funding. With no hard deadline, Congress has continued to punt the issue into the indefinite future as party leaders pursued more pressing priorities, like preventing a shutdown.

On top of that, there are few political incentives for Johnson and Republican leaders to stick their necks out and champion Ukraine aid. Not only is Trump opposed to the idea, but the GOP at large has shifted under Trump’s influence into a more isolationist party — one in which lawmakers such as Greene are gaining power and want to redirect taxpayer dollars from overseas ventures to troubleshooting at home.

“If Speaker Johnson gives another $60 billion to the defense of Ukraine’s border after he FULLY FUNDED Biden’s deadly open border, the cruel joke would be on the American people,” Greene wrote Monday on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Given the treacherous political terrain, some Democrats have accused Johnson of simply trying to run out the clock until after November’s elections. 

Still, Johnson has identified himself throughout the debate as a Reaganesque conservative supportive of a muscular foreign policy, and he appears ready to buck the sentiments of Trump and the majority of his conference in order to help a democratic ally defend itself from Putin’s aggressions. If he’s treaded carefully to minimize the political fallout, he’s also poised to dive into the thorny debate. 

“We’re putting that product together, and we will be moving it right after the district work period,” he told Fox.

What will the timing be? 

Johnson is vowing to move immediately on Ukraine aid when Congress returns to Capitol Hill on Tuesday. But how quickly — or even if — he achieves that goal remains an open question. 

Not only is the task complicated by the myriad ideological disputes and political pressures surrounding it, but Congress is charging briskly into a deadline on another radioactive issue: the reauthorization of the government’s domestic surveillance powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which expires April 19.

Given the short window of time — and the controversy surrounding the FISA law, which divides lawmakers in both parties — there’s a distinct possibility that the Ukraine debate is punted once again until later in the month.

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