By E.J. Dionne Jr.
December 17, 2023
The Washington Post
On Thursday in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin preened before his country’s captive media, predicting that his invasion of Ukraine would end in a Russian victory and that Western countries, once inspired by the Ukrainian people’s resistance to aggression, would lose interest. “They’re getting everything as freebies,” Putin said of Ukraine’s military aid from the West. “But these freebies can run out at some point, and it looks like they’re already starting to run out.”
Back in Washington, Republicans in Congress, under pressure from former president Donald Trump, seemed ready to prove the Russian dictator right. Ukrainians are still fighting and dying, but there was no sense of urgency in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
While Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) kept his colleagues in Washington as negotiators continued to seek a bipartisan deal on a new round of assistance, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) sent lawmakers home and sniffed at the Senate’s efforts. “The House will not wait around to receive and debate a rushed product,” he said.
Rushed product? No, Mr. Speaker, this is not about some hastily built piece of furniture. It’s about a people’s fight for freedom.
On its face, the struggle over Ukraine aid might seem like a typical Washington fight, with one party really wanting one thing and the other really wanting another. President Biden and the Democrats overwhelmingly support helping Ukraine, while Republicans say they won’t offer their votes without major concessions from Democrats radically curtailing immigration.
The Republican tactic of holding Ukraine assistance hostage to hard-line immigration policies would, on a routine issue, seem like clever politics. Democrats are split on how far they should go in making concessions on border policy. Many in the party fear that Republicans will settle for nothing less than reimposing Trump’s cruel approaches — and even then might not act to help Ukraine.
Wedge politics is doing exactly the work the GOP hoped it would, encouraging Democrats to feud with one another even before any deal is made. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) warned that Republicans wanted to “destroy the asylum system” and urged her party to “put our foot down and say no.” On the other side, Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), no one’s idea of a right-winger, insisted that “it isn’t xenophobic to be concerned about the border,” adding “it’s a reasonable conversation, and Democrats should engage.”
But notice that the petty politics of splitting the Democrats and escalating demands on immigration takes the onus off Johnson and pro-Trump Republicans in the House. As a top Senate Democratic aide told me, many House Republicans don’t want to reach any deal.
The Trumpists in the House have also moved the burden of dealmaking to President Biden, whom Republicans are happy to accuse of mishandling negotiations, and to pro-Ukraine Senate Republicans. The latter need to hold tough on immigration to deflect attacks from Trump loyalists who dominate the Republican base before they reach any sort of agreement with Democrats and the president.
Left to his own devices, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), one of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters, would almost certainly find a way to get the emergency funding through. But his power is waning and his would-be successors, such as Sens. John Cornyn (Tex.) and John Thune (S.D.), have to
play a careful game. Both also support helping Ukraine, but they do not want to get too far out of line with an increasingly right-wing party.
Democratic splits on immigration and Biden’s negotiating posture are thus not the central reasons why reaching accord on Ukraine is so hard. At the heart of the difficulties are deep divisions among Republicans, the changing balance of power in their party, and Trump’s ability to bend its politicians to his will.
The best outcome for Trump is to have Ukraine left out in the cold and Biden blamed for not dealing with the border. While Johnson has said some of the right things about Putin, he seems entirely onboard with Trump’s enterprise. He could prove otherwise, but uncertainty over his intentions serves his purposes — and Trump’s — by increasing Senate GOP reluctance to come to any compromise. Many Senate Republicans won’t want to take heat from Trumpists for backing what turns out to be a one-house bill.
What can be done to shatter Putin’s smugness? The Senate needs a deal. Biden and the Democrats have already signaled a willingness to give substantial ground on immigration, which could serve their party’s electoral interests next year. It will take courage, but pro-Ukraine Senate Republicans must be willing to take yes for an answer and not press extreme demands they know Biden can’t possibly agree to.
Above all, Johnson can no longer be treated as a bystander waiting for “product.” As Ronald Reagan said in a line beloved of conservatives, it’s a time for choosing. Johnson can pick Putin, or democracy. I wish I had more confidence that he’ll end up in the right place.
E.J. Dionne Jr. writes a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He is a professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His latest book, with Miles Rapoport, is “100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting.” Twitter