It’s Mike Johnson’s Ukraine moment

The House Speaker is stepping up, but President Biden needs to help him get Democratic votes



April 9, 2024 - 3:00 PM

House Speaker Mike Johnson is finally allowing — with Democrats' help — a vote on aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

Congress returns to Washington this week, and for once something substantive is on the docket. House Speaker Mike Johnson deserves credit for plowing ahead on U.S. support to Ukraine and Israel over the loud objections of his right flank. Few if any votes in the 118th Congress will be as consequential.

The press is preoccupied with the political maneuvering, but the larger strategic picture is that Ukraine is struggling to hold its lines of defense against Russia. The Institute for the Study of War estimates that the Russians have seized about 300 square kilometers of territory since January, albeit at high cost. The Ukrainians are short of ammunition and air defense. Absent an infusion of U.S. weapons, Ukraine will have to make harrowing choices about which ground to relinquish.

In other words, two years of U.S. support and valiant Ukrainian resistance could still result in a victory for Vladimir Putin. The U.S. would look like a feckless friend, and Europe would be the most unstable since Stalin was on the march. America’s friends and foes in Asia and the Middle East will recalculate their strategic risks and opportunities.

Two years of U.S. support and valiant Ukrainian resistance could still result in a victory for Vladimir Putin. The U.S. would look like a feckless friend, and Europe would be the most unstable since Stalin was on the march. 

Donald Trump is capitalizing on the GOP discontent with President Biden’s Ukraine policy and says he wants to negotiate an end to the war. But Vladimir Putin doesn’t — except on his terms. Mr. Trump will have a stronger hand if Ukraine improves its position between now and next year, which means that more weapons now are in Mr. Trump’s political interest.

Funding for arms passed the Senate with 70 votes but has been hung up in the House. More support for Kyiv is unpalatable to roughly half of the GOP conference. So it’s all the more notable that Mr. Johnson is clear about the stakes and is trying to cobble together a package that can pass. The word for this is leadership.

Mr. Johnson has been floating a proposal that would convert some assistance to loans, an idea Mr. Trump has suggested, and overturn President Biden’s ban on liquefied natural gas exports. Some of the assistance could be paid for by seizing billions in frozen Russian sovereign assets, which makes sense if it can be negotiated with Europe where most of the assets are located.

Overturning Mr. Biden’s destructive ban on gas exports would be a victory both for the U.S. economy and weakening Mr. Putin. But that will cost dozens of Democratic votes, and Republicans have so far failed to hang together to extract victories from the Biden Administration. Mr. Johnson may need two-thirds approval because members of his own party can block passage in the Rules Committee that moves bills to the floor for a majority vote.

Yet Mr. Johnson is not the Commander in Chief, and Mr. Biden has abdicated his obligation to build bipartisan support for U.S. assistance to Ukraine. He has made no show of outreach to the Republicans who have voted for U.S. support to Ukraine. And Mr. Biden and the campaign advisers who seem to be running his foreign policy may be bloody-minded enough to think that Republicans will pay the bigger political price for blocking aid.

That is a bad bet. Voters hold Presidents responsible for trouble on their watch, and they know Mr. Biden has framed the fight in Ukraine as an inflection point in history in the struggle between freedom and autocracy. The White House is so far indicating that it won’t abide a trade on natural gas, but is the President’s election-year LNG sop to the climate lobby really worth an historic blow to U.S. credibility if Ukraine falls to Mr. Putin?

Mr. Johnson deserves leeway to see how many GOP votes he can muster for an aid bill. But in the end we hope he will let the House work its will in a floor vote on the Senate’s aid bill. House Republicans can rightly sell the vote as a down payment on U.S. rearmament on everything from 155mm ammunition to Patriot missiles. Ditto for more funding for Israel’s air defenses and Taiwan that is also part of the Senate bill thanks to Republicans like Alaska’s Dan Sullivan.

It has been dispiriting to see how quickly some on the right have derided the conservative Mr. Johnson as a swamp sellout on Ukraine. It’s easier to shout from the cheap seats than to govern, which Mr. Johnson is obliged to do. The particulars of the bill will be forgotten within weeks. What America’s allies — and adversaries — will remember is whether the U.S. cuts and runs on its friends in a fight.