Johnson throws down gauntlet on Israel-Ukraine spending battle

Johnson throws down gauntlet on Israel-Ukraine spending battle

The bipartisan effort to aid Ukraine is facing an increasingly complicated road ahead in the coming weeks as House conservatives, now led by Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), set the stage for a thorny battle over the proposed funding.

Johnson, in his first interview as Speaker with Fox News on Thursday, said he told the White House the consensus of the GOP conference “is that we need to bifurcate” aid to Ukraine and Israel.

“We can’t allow [Russian President Vladimir Putin] to prevail in Ukraine, because I don’t believe it would stop there, and it would probably encourage and empower China to perhaps make a move on Taiwan. We have these concerns,” Johnson said Thursday. But he also argued the White House has not been clear on “what is the endgame in Ukraine.”

His comments came hours after a group of conservative senators introduced a bill to send aid to Israel, splitting it off from the White House’s $105 billion supplemental funding request that also included aid for Ukraine, Taiwan and other issues.

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The push underscores the growing Republican resistance to linking assistance for both nations, even as GOP leadership has pushed for a joint package in the Senate.

President Biden pressed Congress for the aid in a prime-time address last week, proposing $61 billion in lethal assistance to Ukraine and about $14 billion for air and missile defenses in Israel, a far better militarily equipped country.

“The difference here is that Israel has a very advanced military, a very Western-style military already. So the needs writ large are different between what Israel is asking for and what Ukraine is asking for,” Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Thursday.

The two countries are also fighting vastly different wars. Ukraine is struggling through a grinding ground-based counteroffensive and artillery campaign to take back territory from Russian troops, a fight bogged down by mines and other defenses that Moscow’s forces have had plenty of time to set up. Israel, on the other hand, is poised to launch a ground offensive against Hamas within a dense cityscape that will require intense house-to-house urban fighting.

But while the majority of Republicans support additional aid to Ukraine — including military and economic assistance — the issue is much more divisive than supporting aid for Israel, which has near-unanimous backing within the GOP.

Speaker-elect Mike Johnson (R-La.)
Speaker-elect Mike Johnson (R-La.)

Speaker-elect Mike Johnson (R-La.) gives a speech following his election to Speaker in the House Chamber on Wednesday, October 25, 2023. (Greg Nash)

At a Senate GOP lunch earlier this week, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) urged lawmakers to move aid for Israel and Ukraine together, but he was met with swift opposition from conservatives.

Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio) said following the lunch he pushed for the aid to be considered separately.

“My main takeaway from the lunch is there is a lot of disagreement within the conference about advancing this thing as a four-bucket package as presented by the Biden administration,” he said.

Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, are hoping that assistance for both nations remains linked.

“As Ukrainians, we are clear the endgame for us is gaining the territories back and winning the war,” said Oleksandra Ustinova, a member of the Ukraine’s parliament who was part of Kyiv’s delegation sent to lobby Congress on lethal aid this week.

“But so far with the support that has been coming from the United States, it was enough to sustain the war but not to win ,” she told reporters Thursday. “[So] we really hope that [Johnson] brings the supplemental to the floor.”

Ustinova said the delegation has been fielding questions from the GOP about Kyiv’s endgame.

She added that she was hopeful to see the bill brought to the floor in the coming weeks, as Johnson had never outright said he wouldn’t do so.

Some in the GOP, however, took aim at Johnson for leaving the door open for Ukraine aid at all.

“To his great credit, the new Speaker has been a stalwart on the Ukraine issue — voting consistently against an endless conflict with no plan from the Biden administration,” Vance wrote Friday on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

“It’s concerning to see him change his tune so quickly after being elevated to this role.”

Johnson also said in the recent interview that House Republicans would bring “forward a standalone Israel funding measure [of] over $14 billion,” while calling for aid to Israel to be offset by spending cuts in other parts of the nation’s budget.

“Here’s the important thing that distinguishes House Republicans from the other team, we’re going to find pay-fors in the budget, we’re not just printing money to send it overseas, we’re going to find the cuts elsewhere to do that,” Johnson said.

His comments come as some in the party’s right flank have also called for supplemental funding for Ukraine and Israel to be offset.

“That’s actually the most important part here, is paying for and offsetting supplemental spending, because it’s tens of billions, if not 100 billion-plus, dollars,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a leading budget hawk, said earlier this week.

The call coincides with a larger push in the House GOP for steep cuts to nondefense programs for most of the coming year, as the party seeks to quickly pass its remaining partisan spending plans by mid-November — when the government funding is set to run out, absent a plan by Congress to prevent a shutdown.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters earlier this week that there’s been “open discussion” around how and when the supplemental spending gets a vote.

“It’s really up to the leadership; it’s going to be up to [Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)] and Senator McConnell. I think they’re gonna work very closely together to coordinate that,” Cardin said, adding that there’s talks “as to when it comes up on the floor.”

“Does it come up by itself? Is it put in a continuing resolution? I think those discussions are ongoing. I don’t know if they’ve been resolved yet,” he said Thursday. But he added that he thinks “it is more likely it stays as one package rather than being divided.”

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) argued earlier this week in favor of a larger package tackling aid for both countries.

“If you start looking at how we’re going to get the votes together to support Ukraine and support Israel, you don’t do those individual packages, or at least I wouldn’t,” he said Tuesday.

He also argued that there’s “more options” if they’re handled together, as other Republicans have sought to tie Ukraine aid to measures aimed at bolstering border security in hopes to secure concessions from Democrats.

Laura Kelly and Alex Bolton contributed.

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