Mike Johnson aid bills: what is the US speaker’s plan for Ukraine and Israel, and will it pass Congress?

Jonathan Yerushalmy

US House speaker, Mike Johnson, has said long-awaited votes on aid for Ukraine, Israel and the Indo-Pacific will take place as soon as Saturday, putting the senior Republican on a collision course with members of his own party.

At stake is $95bn of US security assistance that has been in limbo for months, amid fierce objections from far-right Republicans. Johnson’s decision to push ahead with the votes also puts his own job at risk, with at least two Republicans threatening to put forward a motion to remove him, just six months after he assumed the job.

How did we get here?

Congress has been frozen for months in its efforts to approve military aid for Ukraine due to growing opposition among Republicans.

The voices of isolationist Republicans have grown louder, bolstered by former president Donald Trump who has said foreign aid should be structured as a loan, not a “giveaway”, while calling into question America’s commitment to its Nato allies who are committed to Ukraine’s defence.

Efforts to pass legislation that would secure military assistance for Ukraine hit another barrier in 2023, as some Republicans began to insist that the foreign aid bill must be tied to addressing the needs at the US-Mexico border, where arrests for illegal crossings have hit record highs.

In February, the Senate voted to block the advancement of a bill that guaranteed foreign aid, while also providing new powers to shut down the border and expedite deportations.

Later that month the Senate passed a bill that provided $95bn of wartime aid to Ukraine, Israel and other American allies, but contained no provisions related to the US border.

Despite this legislation passing with broad, bipartisan support in the Senate, Johnson continually refused to bring the Senate bill to the floor of the House. Without the House voting to approve it, the bill remained stalled up until this week.

How do the new bills differ from those the Senate approved?

On Tuesday, Johnson unveiled his proposals, which involved holding votes on three separate funding packages for Ukraine, Israel and the Indo-Pacific – as well as a fourth bill that contains other Republican foreign policy proposals.

The package totals $95.3bn in spending, which matches the total the Senate passed in February, but contains a few differences designed to win over some House conservatives.

Aid to Ukraine would total about $61bn, but more than a third of that amount would be dedicated to replenishing weapons and ammunition systems for the US military.

The $13.8bn provided to Ukraine for the purchase of weapons from the US is roughly the same as the previous Senate bill.

The main difference between the two packages is that the House bill provides more than $9bn in economic assistance to Ukraine in the form of “forgivable loans”. The Senate bill included no such provision seeking repayment.

The idea of structuring the aid as a loan is a key Trump policy proposal and is supported by a number of Republicans.

Johnson says the House bill package also includes a requirement for the Biden administration to provide a plan and a strategy to Congress for what it seeks to achieve in Ukraine. The plan would be required within 45 days of the bill being signed into law. House Republicans frequently complain that they have yet to see a strategy for ending the war.

Aid to support Israel and provide humanitarian relief to Gaza comes to more than $26bn. The money dedicated to replenishing Israel’s missile defence systems totals about $4bn in both the House and Senate bills. Some of the money allocated to Israel will also cover the cost of US military operations responding to recent attacks.

Johnson has said his package for the Indo-Pacific will include about $8bn to counter China and ensure a strong deterrence in the region. The overall amount of money is about the same as the Senate bill, with a quarter of funds used to replenish weapons and ammunition systems that had been provided to Taiwan.

Why has Johnson chosen to advance the aid packages now?

After Iran’s unprecedented weekend attack on Israel, the White House and top Democrats and Republicans in the Senate called on Johnson to approve the Senate’s aid package. On Sunday, he told Fox News that Republicans understood the “necessity of standing with Israel”.

At the same time, as US aid to Ukraine has stalled, Kyiv’s position on the battlefield has reached a perilous position. Insufficient ammunition and dwindling air defence missiles have left the country’s defences exposed.

In Washington, alarm has grown at the deteriorating situation and at a hearing on Wednesday, Pentagon leaders testified that Ukraine and Israel both desperately need weapons.

On Wednesday, Johnson told reporters: “History judges us for what we do. This is a critical time right now.” According to reports in the Washington Post, Johnson’s opposition to Ukraine aid has changed since he became speaker and began to receive intelligence briefings more frequently.

Will the aid packages pass?

Johnson is attempting to corral a divided Republican party with the slimmest of majorities in the House. With a number of Republicans avowedly committed to opposing the bills, the speaker will be reliant on support from Democrats to push the legislation through.

House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries has said he plans to gather Democrats for a meeting on Thursday morning to discuss the package.

“Our topline commitment is ironclad,” he told reporters. “We are going to make sure we stand by our democratic allies in Ukraine, in Israel, in the Indo-Pacific.”

The proposals have already received a ringing endorsement from Joe Biden, who has said he will sign the packages into law immediately, should Congress pass them. A number of Republicans have indicated they will support them as well.

In an effort to satisfy conservatives in his own party, Johnson said he will hold a separate vote on a border security package, however some Republicans have already denounced the plan as insufficient.

At least two Republican House members have threatened to try to oust Johnson if he goes ahead with the votes.

Far-right congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, was joined by Thomas Massie of Kentucky, in calling for Johnson to resign.

“I want someone that will actually pursue a Republican agenda and knows how to walk in the room and negotiate and not get tossed around the room like some kind of party toy,” Greene said. But she added that she would not move on the motion to vacate Johnson as speaker before the vote on foreign aid.

(Source: Agencies)