Why It’s So Hard To Force The House To Vote On The Senate’s Ukraine Aid Bill

The record of petitions to bypass opposition by a House speaker is historically poor.

With House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) swearing he will not allow a House vote on a Senate-passed bill to provide Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars in weaponry to fight off a Russian invasion, supporters of aid to the nation ― who make up a clear majority of Congress ― are looking for alternatives.

The option that’s been mentioned most is a so-called discharge petition, signed by a majority of House members to force a floor vote. But the history of discharge petitions shows they are far easier to talk about than actually execute. Still, it may prove to be the best available option to get the Ukranians needed weaponry. 

“It’s a dreadfully slow, cumbersome, and brittle process that is not well suited for anything dynamic or urgent,” said Liam Donovan, a former Republican Hill staffer and a partner at lobbying firm Bracewell LLP.

The Senate cleared the $95.5 billion bill early Tuesday morning after working through the weekend on it. It would provide about $60 billion in aid to Ukraine, mostly by funding replacement equipment for existing U.S. weapons sent to Ukraine and for Ukraine to buy new weapons.

Funds would also be provided for Israel ― to support stepped-up U.S. military activity in the region, humanitarian aid to Gaza, and for beefing up Taiwan’s defense.

The Senate vote was 70 to 29, with 26 Republicans, two Democrats and one independent voting against it.

There’s little doubt (even among opponents of Ukraine aid) that the bill would easily pass the House if Johnson brought it up for a vote. 

“If it were to get to the floor, it would pass — let’s just be frank about that,” admitted Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus and an opponent of aid to Ukraine, on “The John Fredericks Show” on Tuesday morning.

Despite the clear support, Johnson doubled down Tuesday, insisting he would not take the bill up on the floor, despite its bipartisan margin in the Senate and the possibility of a similar tally if the House voted on it.

“The House has to work its will on this. There’s a deliberative process, and we’re engaged in that,” Johnson told Fox News.

“I certainly oppose it and hope it would not be considered,” he said of a discharge petition. 

Ukraine supporters have asked Johnson to reconsider his position. Ukrainian troops in the eastern part of the country are in danger of losing their first significant piece of territory, a town named Avdiivka, since Bahkmut last spring amid reports of ammo shortages and an artillery advantage favoring Russians.

“The fate of the Ukrainian people and the security of America’s allies in Europe is now in the hands of Speaker Johnson. If he allows a vote, this aid package for Ukraine will pass,” said Scott Cullinane, director of government affairs for advocacy group Razom for Ukraine.

“There are still a majority of Republicans in Congress who remember and follow President Reagan’s doctrine of peace through strength and helping our country’s allies defend freedom and democracy.”

Because Johnson leads the Republicans, and the GOP holds a 219 to 212 edge in the number of members in the House, the Senate bill will not come to the floor without Johnson’s blessing, or unless it is changed in some manner to make it more palatable to the GOP.

Johnson could allow the bill on the floor, but require a two-thirds majority for it to pass, as he has done recently with bills he’s supported but were blocked by his fellow Republicans. But that could further antagonize anti-Ukraine members of his own party who then could try to oust him, as happened with his predecessor, former Rep. Kevin McCarthy.

In theory, discharge petitions are a way around such impasses. In practice, though, they take weeks to use and have rarely worked.

Since 1996, only two bills have made it to the House floor through a discharge petition — a 2015 bill to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, and in 2002, a campaign finance measure named for the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). Both went on to become law.

Usually discharge petitions are started by members of the minority party with the hope of getting all of their fellow party members and a handful of the majority to sign on and provide the 218 signatures needed. But signing the other party’s petition risks angering party colleagues and leaders.

And that’s not all. Under House rules, the bill the discharge petition would be trying to get freed from being bottled up in a committee has to have been in that committee for at least 30 “legislative days.” That includes only days the House meets, which means it would be longer than 30 calendar days. 

With a possible debt default looming last year, Democrats cooked up an effort to try to supercharge a discharge petition timetable by having it aimed at a bill that had already been referred to several committees for more than 30 days. But using that petition for Ukraine would have its own issues.

Donovan said forcing the Senate bill onto the floor could take at least 40 days using a new discharge petition, and using the petition originally set up for the debt limit would mean sending the bill back to the Senate for final passage, which would also add time.

“In other words, it’s a terrible option that may eventually prove to be the cleanest dirty shirt,” he said. Donovan noted another option for giving aid to Ukraine may be forthcoming negotiations over how to avoid a government shutdown: “The big question in the meantime is how the House deals with regular appropriations, and whether these conversations can be merged.”

Former GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a Ukraine supporter, said in a social media post the fastest way to force House action would be for Ukraine supporters to do what conservative House Republicans have been doing for some time: threaten to keep other bills from the floor until there’s a vote on Ukraine.

“Only three or four House Republicans have to agree to take down every rule until that agreement is made and it’s iron-clad,” he said. “The best analogy I use is if everybody in a room has a hand grenade, the one that’s willing to actually pull the pin and drop the grenade is the most powerful of all these grenade-wielding people.”

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