Speaker Mike Johnson On Collision Course With Sen. Mitch McConnell Over Ukraine Aid

Congressional Republicans aren't on the same page when it comes to aid for Ukraine, and their divisions are playing into the hands of Democrats.

WASHINGTON ― House Republicans are set to vote this week on an emergency aid package for Israel that leaves out funding for other U.S. allies facing critical threats, including Ukraine and Taiwan.

But there’s a big problem for newly minted House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.): His first major piece of legislation faces significant bipartisan opposition in the Senate, including from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

McConnell has been banging the drum for weeks on behalf of a broader national security spending bill that would deter nations like Russia, China and Iran in what could be a legacy-defining issue for the 81-year-old senator, who finds himself increasingly at odds with some members of his party.

“Iran would love to see a Russian victory against Ukraine that divides the West and deepens its own defense cooperation with Moscow,” McConnell said in a speech Tuesday on the Senate floor. “And China, for its part, would love to see America’s resolve ― to stand with European and Israeli allies and reestablish actual deterrence against Russia and Iran ― crumble.”

“So at the risk of repeating myself: The threats facing America and our allies are serious, and they’re intertwined. If we ignore that fact, we do so at our own peril,” he warned.

The issue of continued U.S. support for Ukraine in the face of a bloody Russian onslaught has split congressional Republicans in both the House and Senate. More establishment-minded lawmakers in the Senate are backing the position taken by McConnell and top Democrats, including President Joe Biden.

“I think it is a big mistake to suggest that our national security interests can be separated here,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters on Tuesday. “To separate the package is naive. Because the threats have commonality.”

Meanwhile, a number of staunch Senate conservatives are pressing for passage of aid to Israel only while keeping the possibility of taking up aid to Ukraine and Taiwan at a later date. It’s possible that a standalone Ukraine aid bill would never pass in the GOP-controlled House.

“We’ve got to realize that the speaker of the Republican-controlled House is the leader of the party,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said Tuesday in a not-so-subtle shot at McConnell. “He’s making some calls, and we in the minority of the Senate ought to follow his lead and not undermine him.”

For the moment, at least, the Ukraine aid naysayers in the Senate appear to be outnumbered by the Republican senators who support a broader spending package that includes funding for Ukraine and Taiwan.

House Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are shown meeting for the first time since Johnson gained his leadership post in a photo posted on McConnell's Facebook page.
House Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are shown meeting for the first time since Johnson gained his leadership post in a photo posted on McConnell's Facebook page.
Mitch McConnell / Facebook

But McConnell made it clear on Tuesday that Democrats will have to swallow a big price for Senate Republicans’ support for Ukraine aid: tougher immigration policies to stem the tide of migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I think the Democrats will have to accept a really serious U.S.-Mexico border protection bill in order to get our people on board,” McConnell said at a weekly news conference.

The Biden administration has called on Congress to pass an additional $14 billion for border enforcement, but Republicans have insisted that broader policy changes are needed. Whether those changes will be accepted by enough Democrats is unclear.

“Some of the Republican demands are a bit of a moving target,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Tuesday. “This idea we can do immigration reform inside [an emergency spending bill] is a hard one to get your head wrapped around, even if they knew what they wanted.”

Democrats flatly rejected the House GOP bill providing aid to Israel on the grounds that it fails to include assistance to Ukraine but does include cuts to Internal Revenue Service enforcement programs.

“This House GOP proposal is clearly designed to divide Congress on a partisan basis,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday.

“It makes aid for Israel contingent on poison pills that reward ultra-wealthy tax cheats. It’s insulting that the hard right is openly trying to exploit the crisis in Israel to try and reward the ultra-rich,” he added.

Democrats could decide to take up whatever the House passes, amend it by including additional aid to Ukraine and send it back to the lower chamber. But doing so will require support from at least 10 Republican senators ― and their votes won’t come cheap.

“We’re still trying to crystallize the ask, but there’s definitely discussions saying this will be the price for 41 Republicans to agree” to advancing a funding bill in the Senate, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said when asked about the potential border security provisions.

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