By Marianna Sotomayor, Leigh Ann Caldwell and Abigail Hauslohner

March 13, 2024

The Washington Post


Pressure is mounting for Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) to address aiding foreign allies as House Democrats and Republicans tee up opposing measures that would supersede House GOP leadership and trigger votes on bills funding Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and the U.S. border. Democrats and a separate bipartisan group of lawmakers on Tuesday began gathering signatures for competing discharge petitions, a mechanism that moves legislation out of committees and forces a House floor vote without support from leadership if it has the backing of 218 lawmakers.

The Democratic measure, led by Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.), had amassed nearly 180 signatures from the caucus as of Wednesday evening and would advance a national security package the Senate overwhelmingly approved over a month ago that allots $95.3 billion to assist foreign democracies. Democratic leaders believe that the large number of signatures compiled in less than 24 hours shows that Democrats would provide significant votes for Ukraine funding if Johnson were to put it on the floor.

The launch of McGovern’s effort motivated a bipartisan group of House members — Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Don Bacon (R-Neb.), Jared Golden (D-Maine) and Ed Case (D-Hawaii) — to formally introduce their own petition Tuesday. The bipartisan petition extends funding for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan for one year. But unlike the Democratic petition, it also extends Trump-era border security measures used to mitigate the flow of migrants at the U.S. southern border, which are critical to earning House Republicans’ support. Though fewer than 15 lawmakers had signed on to the bipartisan measure as of Wednesday afternoon, the group continues to negotiate with party leaders and colleagues as it works to finalize legislative text with policies a majority of both parties could accept.

The competing efforts have sprung from a clash within the Republican majority, in which defense hawks are eager to signal support for U.S. allies abroad while the growing isolationist faction of the party is pushing former president Donald Trump’s “America First” ideology, which calls for moving away from longtime foreign partnerships and treaties such as NATO, and seeking to focus on the U.S. border. The standoff has put Johnson in a bind over how to piece together a plan that a majority of the House can support but that also doesn’t lead to a revolt by hard-liners closely watching his leadership.

“There’s no trading our border security for another country’s border security or foreign wars. That’s just a nonstarter with the American people,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). “I’ve expressed to the speaker and his office that he’ll find himself very unpopular if he does that.”

House Republicans have for months been unable to reach consensus within their ranks on national security legislation that can also pass a Democratic-led Senate with Republicans who agree on the urgency of funding Ukraine. House GOP leaders have had to suspend rules requiring a simple-majority threshold to pass bills, instead requiring support from Democrats to reach a two-thirds majority.

Unlike several other government funding bills, the national security supplemental is less likely to receive united Democratic backing. Demands to help Israel in its war against Hamas have roiled relationships within the caucus, and many Democrats want to guarantee the inclusion of sufficient humanitarian relief for Palestinians in Gaza. Those divisions also threaten the Democratic-led discharge petition.

Multiple GOP lawmakers and aides — who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing private conversations — said that Johnson has not made a decision on how to tackle supplemental funding and that multiple options remain on the table. Johnson and his leadership team have publicly promised to address the supplemental funding, but not until Congress gets past another government funding deadline March 22.

House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) said in an interview that one option could be to split up the Senate-passed bill and hold individual votes on each significant portion, a process hard-right lawmakers have often demanded. But that would mean “every single dollar in that bill will have to be scrutinized before it can move forward,” he said. Emmer stressed that he personally supports aid for Ukraine but that the decision on how to move forward is Johnson’s.

Members of the House Freedom Caucus are viewing how Johnson deals with supplemental funding as an indication of whether he is willing to fight for key ideological priorities of the MAGA base. If either discharge petition ends up getting 218 signatures, Johnson could use several mechanisms to kill it before a final vote is held. “The speaker said for a long time after becoming speaker that the border was the hill we would die on. And yet I don’t see us fighting for the border,” said Freedom Caucus Chair Bob Good (R-Va.).

But Democrats, and several Republicans eager to aid Ukraine, said the myriad urgent situations abroad negate the need for deliberative debate within a conference that cannot reach consensus. Critics say that fractiousness contributes to Johnson’s delay in making a decision.

Oddly helping the case of both groups of petitioners is the reluctance of hard-right lawmakers to say whether Johnson would be ousted from the speakership if a discharge petition were successful. Good said he “never expected a speaker to control other members,” while Greene was skeptical the MAGA base would go after Johnson if he couldn’t control a discharge petition. “Those are the rules of the House,” she said.

Fitzpatrick, who alongside Bacon approached Golden and Case to find a bipartisan solution, said crafting legislation that appeals to a simple majority of 218 bipartisan lawmakers requires patience and persistence, but “not too much patience because Ukraine has weeks, not months, to maintain its fight against Russia.”

Those supporting the bipartisan route echo a reality within the House Republican Conference: The Senate bill is simply “DOA” — dead on arrival, as Bacon put it — and, by extension, so is the Democratic petition, because it does not include border security funding. (A bipartisan Senate border security proposal was negotiated to be included in the national security package but was almost immediately scrapped after Trump and congressional Republicans squashed the deal that House Republicans had initially demanded.)

Many defense and national security hawks are interested in signing the bipartisan petition but are waiting to see whether Johnson ultimately proposes a path forward before doing so. Bacon, who met with Johnson alongside Fitzpatrick on Friday, said he asked the speaker whether the duo should shut down their effort if it impeded his course of action. While Johnson did not discourage it outright, Bacon said, “I don’t think he encouraged me, either.”

Still, Johnson has been publicly discouraging Republicans from signing on to the petition, saying he is “very much opposed.”

Johnson’s lack of clarity on a path forward was criticized Tuesday by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who told the speaker in a meeting that his indecision is consequential for Ukraine, the United States and all Western countries. “Mr. Johnson must be aware, that on his individual decision depends the fate of millions of people,” Tusk told reporters in Polish.

House Democratic leaders have been echoing those calls in urging Johnson to put the Senate-approved package on the House floor for a vote. But House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday ramped up the pressure by urging his caucus to sign on to McGovern’s effort before leaving Washington on Wednesday, according to people familiar with the conversation. Jeffries also emphasized that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) supports Johnson’s moving the Senate bill unilaterally.

If House Democrats can get all members in the conference to sign on to McGovern’s petition, they would need only five Republican signatures to trigger a floor vote. But House Republicans across the ideological spectrum said scores of them would be extremely hesitant to support a Democratic-led effort. Democratic leaders are aware of that, but are eyeing retiring Republicans and lawmakers who survived far-right primary challengers, hoping to persuade them to lend their signatures, according to two people familiar with the plan.

It is also unlikely that all Democrats would sign on to McGovern’s petition, with a growing swath of liberals uncomfortable with sending billions of dollars in lethal aid to Israel, as the Israeli government continues to buck pleas for restraint from the Biden administration in a five-month-old Gaza war that has killed tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians. Roughly 40 Democrats had yet to sign the petition as of Wednesday morning. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a member of the liberal “Squad,” said she was unlikely to sign the petition because of the $14.1 billion for Israel and because it blocks funding for the U.N. relief agency that distributes the bulk of humanitarian assistance inside Gaza. Israel has accused the agency of having ties to Hamas and its Oct. 7 terrorist attack.

However, the specifics of the Democratic discharge petition would allow the attached legislation to be altered into a more palatable version that is still being negotiated. The new proposal could still include funding for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and border security measures for one year while also incorporating humanitarian aid for Gaza to appease Democrats and more funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to help secure more Republican votes.

Some Democrats are also concerned about provisions that could allow Department of Homeland Security agents to make decisions on whether to force most asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for U.S. court hearings and immediately deport undocumented migrants if the border is overwhelmed. Negotiators are also looking to add a lend-lease provision to appease the more conservative flank of Republicans, who are eager to have supplies sent to foreign countries returned after the war ends and hold them accountable for paying back any debt incurred.

Several committee chairs approached lawmakers last week about other tweaks to consider, such as a provision to give the president the power to redirect seized Russian assets to Ukraine to use for reconstruction, according to multiple people familiar with the effort. Conversations continue with lawmakers on the House Appropriations, Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, the people said, who pointed to their cooperation as a signal that the bipartisan effort remains alive.

But the Senate closed ranks Tuesday in a bipartisan rejection of the Fitzpatrick-Golden effort, or any other House-created Ukraine aid legislation, with both Senate leaders saying the House should instead move on the measure that passed the Senate with 70 votes last month. “The only way to get relief to the Ukrainians and the Israelis quickly is for the House to figure out how to pass the Senate bill,” McConnell told reporters, pointing out that it could take “weeks” in the Senate if the House were to send back different legislation. “We don’t have time for all of this.”