Speaker Johnson faces critical decision on Ukraine aid as international pressure grows to act

Feb 19, 2024, 3:50 PM | Updated: 3:56 pm

Speaker Mike Johnson, here on February 18, is facing international criticism over his lack of swift...

Speaker Mike Johnson, here on February 18, is facing international criticism over his lack of swift action on Ukraine aid. (Leah Mills, Reuters)

(Leah Mills, Reuters)

(CNN) — Speaker Mike Johnson is facing international criticism over his lack of swift action on Ukraine aid, which is ratcheting up pressure to make a critical decision that will not only have massive implications for his rookie speakership but also for Ukraine’s ongoing war effort against Russia.

So far, Johnson has resisted calls to bring a Senate-passed aid package up for a quick vote – a move that would require Democratic support and almost certainly spark a revolt from his right flank, something Johnson is eager to avoid. The speaker has said the legislation, which includes over $60 billion in assistance for Ukraine, would not pass in its current form, and privately told Republicans during a closed-door meeting last week there is “no rush” to address the issue, with Congress since having left town for a nearly two-week recess.

The stakes of the high-profile debate – and Johnson’s pivotal role in a legislative response – came into even greater focus over the weekend. Global leaders gathered at the annual Munich Security Conference just as news broke that Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny had died in prison, while Ukraine suffered a significant setback to Russian forces on the battlefield – twin developments that have injected a new sense of urgency for Congress to act as the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine approaches this weekend and as the Ukrainian military warns it is running out of resources to resist.

While there is a contingent of House Republicans who support additional Ukraine aid and it has majority support from the chamber as a whole, Johnson has to manage a rambunctious right-flank that is deeply resistant to additional aid – including some who have threatened his job would suffer a similar fate as ousted former Speaker Kevin McCarthy if he puts a standalone bill on the floor. And further complicating matters, the Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has also injected himself into the debate, urging Republicans to oppose Ukraine funding and continuing to rail against NATO.

Caught in the middle

Some GOP lawmakers like Sen. J.D. Vance echoed Trump’s rhetoric arguing no more support should be given, while others are offering bipartisan solutions in the absence of a clear path forward. But it is unclear where Johnson — who is caught in the middle of the competing wings of his party — stands, even amid fresh warnings over the weekend about the direness of the situation.

“I think many of us understand the plans that are out there,” one GOP lawmaker, granted the condition of anonymity to speak freely, told CNN.  “If there is a Mike Johnson plan, there aren’t any House Republicans that are aware of its existence.”

The pressure cooker Johnson is facing has exposed some frustration over how he has approached his speakership. At a time when House Republicans are looking to their leader to make a decisive choice, the speaker has instead elevated members to bring forward their own ideas without articulating his own preferences.

“When the chips are down in the fourth quarter, every team needs somebody who calls the play in the huddle,” the GOP lawmaker added. “Not everybody gets to bring a play and have it equally debated in the closing moments of a close game. You need a captain. Mike Johnson is our captain and it’s time for him to call the play.”

GOP Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio, a member of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, warned Johnson would be risking his job if he puts the Senate’s foreign aid bill on the House floor – a sign of the conundrum the speaker is in.

“He would need Democrats to hold on to the gavel at that point,” Davidson told CNN. “Multiple of my colleagues have already promised that. I believe that it’s not an empty threat.”

As Ukraine funding languishes in the House, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said there were “lots of conversations” in Munich about the importance of the United States’ commitment to Ukraine, while Sen. Ben Cardin, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relation Committee, said the sense of urgency was only underscored by Navalny’s death.

“I hope it moves the needle. We shouldn’t need anything to move the needle. We got to get it done,” Cardin said. “Ukraine is in desperate need of the US aid, passed by an overwhelming bipartisan vote on the floor of the United States Senate. The House needs to take up this issue immediately. Why? Because Ukraine literally needs the ammunition in order to hold Russia back.”

“So, it’s urgent and I think what’s happened here in Munich only underscores that,” he added.

It’s not just Democrats who have been critical. Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, who represents a swing district in Pennsylvania, criticized House GOP leaders for dismissing the Senate’s foreign aid package and its bipartisan border deal without having a backup plan.

“I think it’s fine to criticize somebody else’s work product as long as you have a better alternative,” he told CNN. “It’s not ok to criticize someone’s work and offer no alternative, especially on existential, time sensitive matters like we’re dealing with right now.”

Inexperienced speaker put to the test

After the Senate passed a $95 billion aid package with the support of Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, the fate of Ukraine aid now rests almost entirely in the hands of Johnson, who has only been on the job for four months and lacks experience on the international stage.

As a rank-and-file member, Johnson voted against Ukraine funding and never visited the country as part of a congressional delegation, according to sources familiar with the matter. But as speaker, Johnson has struck a slightly different tone, saying he understands the gravity of the situation and sending signals to members privately that he wants to find a way to address the issue, according to GOP sources who have been in meetings with him.

In a statement over the weekend in response to Navalnvy’s death, Johnson called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “vicious dictator” who must be “met with opposition,” though he did not outline any plans for doing so.

“As Congress debates the best path forward to support Ukraine, the United States, and our partners, must be using every means available to cut off Putin’s ability to fund his unprovoked war in Ukraine and aggression against the Baltic states,” Johnson said.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise said there are ongoing internal discussions about how to address Ukraine, including potentially structuring the funding as a loan – something Trump has called for – or finding ways to offset the cost of the bill, but nothing has been decided yet.

“There’s a number of creative ideas that have been talked about, including the loan structure, a paid-for bill,” Scalise told CNN in a recent exclusive interview. “We’re looking at a number of options on our leadership team.”

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has repeatedly hammered Johnson over his inaction. The House and Senate are scheduled to be out of session until next week, while sources said top House Republican leaders have been huddling in Florida over the weekend and early this week for various annual leadership retreats.

“They’re making a big mistake,” Biden told reporters on Monday. “The way they’re walking away from the state of Russia, the way they’re walking away from NATO… I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Johnson told lawmakers last week that he has asked for a meeting with Biden on Ukraine and the southern border before he moves ahead, but the request has not been granted yet. Asked about whether he would meet with the speaker, Biden said Monday: “I’d be happy to meet with him if he has something to say.”

Keeping the heat on

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is also keeping the heat on Johnson, demanding in a new statement on Sunday that House Republicans pass a foreign aid bill, saying Putin “is watching.”

“Last week, the Senate overwhelmingly passed the national security supplemental, and I urged the House and Speaker Johnson to act — but now — with the death of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political foe, Alexei Navalny, an urgent alarm bell now rings,” Schumer, a New York Democrat, said in a statement.

As Johnson weighs how to proceed, some lawmakers are taking matters into their own hands. A bipartisan group of House lawmakers introduced their own foreign package that includes just military assistance for Ukraine and some border security provisions, but it’s still likely to face resistance.

There’s also some talk among Democrats about using a so-called discharge petition to force a floor vote on an aid package. But the procedural tool is tricky and time-consuming, and would require buy-in from Republicans, so it’s not seen as a very viable option at this point.

Rep. Mike Turner, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who was also in Munich this weekend, insisted there was enough bipartisan support to pass Ukraine aid despite the deep skepticism from some in the GOP.

“I do think that there is an opportunity when we get back to Washington to move this important aid package forward because it is so critical,” the Ohio Republican said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “This does need to get done. This is absolutely critical for US support for Ukraine.”

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Speaker Johnson faces critical decision on Ukraine aid as international pressure grows to act