Speaker Johnson still has time to do right by Ukraine

The United States cannot abdicate its international responsibilities



March 1, 2024 - 2:42 PM

U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) refused to provide military aid to Ukraine and Israel in this year's spending bills. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)

Thankfully, it appears there will be no partial government shutdown in early March. Congressional leaders and the White House have agreed on a short-term spending measure — the fourth such stopgap this fiscal year. 

Instead of looming deadlines on March 1 and March 8, the days of reckoning have been pushed back to March 8 and March 22. That allows time for negotiating a final budget deal, which appears, finally, to be achievable.

But, in this chaotic Republican-led House, nothing is certain until all the votes are officially cast and counted. 

Moreover, avoiding a shutdown, important as it is, is not even the most crucial item on Congress’s agenda. A supplemental appropriations bill that includes aid for Ukraine remains in limbo. 

It has passed the Senate on a bipartisan 70-29 vote, but House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has so far refused to put it on the floor for an up-or-down vote — which it would easily pass. 

Though it’s vital to Ukraine, Europe and, yes, the United States, the GOP’s isolationist right, under the influence of former president Donald Trump, objects.

Mr. Johnson might not want to cross Mr. Trump, as the former president advances to his third consecutive GOP presidential nomination. 

But his even more immediate concern could be the potential reaction of extremist House Republicans, who could seek to oust Mr. Johnson from the speakership if he relies heavily on Democratic votes to pass the $95 billion package, which is not only for Ukraine but includes billions of dollars in military aid for Israel and Taiwan, too.

The threat is all too plausible after the GOP rebellion that unseated Kevin McCarthy from the speakership in October — the first time a sitting speaker was dethroned in the nation’s history. According to the rebels, Mr. McCarthy’s sin was trying to prevent a shutdown by passing the reasonable compromise budget he had negotiated with President Biden; it would save $1.4 trillion over the next 10 years.

Mr. Johnson faces a similar choice: do the right thing and face down a determined fraction in House GOP ranks, or cave to the extremists in an effort to keep control of the speaker’s gavel, regardless of whether that means betraying Ukraine and leaving its people insufficiently equipped to fight Russian aggression.

Mr. Johnson does not want to be the second speaker to fall. But there’s reason to believe the political calculus facing him might be different from the one his predecessor confronted. 

Mr. Johnson does not engender the kind of pent-up personal hostility among the GOP rank and file that Mr. McCarthy had earned over years of seeking the gavel. Democrats could have saved Mr. McCarthy by giving him just enough support to defeat a recall vote, rather than forcing him to rely on an extremely narrow GOP majority to remain in the speaker’s chair. But they were in no mood to do so after his flip-flop on Mr. Trump’s culpability in the Jan. 6, 2021, riots. 

Mr. Johnson is somewhat more palatable to Democrats.

This Congress is coming to an end in less than a year anyway, making the question of who inhabits the speaker’s office less consequential. 

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) has already suggested enough Democrats will step in to save Mr. Johnson’s speakership if the foreign military and humanitarian aid bill passes. It makes sense. Government funding and Ukraine aid votes are likely to be among the last major actions the House takes. (Though we wish the Senate would pass a pending bipartisan tax deal that would help millions of U.S. children in low-income households.) 

There isn’t much left to negotiate.

Even as Mr. Johnson faces fewer risks than Mr. McCarthy did, there is more urgency for him to act.