COMPASS: Speaker Johnson leans into Ukraine aid

April 2nd, 2024

Good afternoon from Capitol Hill.

The House and Senate are still in recess, but it’s not all fun and games. House Speaker Mike Johnson is signaling his intentions to move a Kyiv-sized problem to the House floor next week.

In a recent Fox News interview, Johnson laid out a potential path for the House to consider another tranche of Ukraine aid – primarily by considering it as a “loan.” President Trump has previously speculated about packaging the aid this way, which also reflects what several European allies have done with their assistance. 

It is certainly not an unprecedented way to handle continued to foreign assistance, but the rub, like anything, comes in the details. In many, many cases, these loans are never paid back. They are forgiven or waived in some future legislative package, or given some mysterious deadline that never approaches. It is unclear how Johnson’s formulation would manage the payback.

Johnson also mentioned two other scenarios, including paying for the next $60 billion in aid by using seized Russian assets, frozen in Western banks since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022. A couple of billion of the estimated $300 billion in assets resides in the United States – the rest is in Europe, and accessing it would require cooperation from European allies.

The final option floated by Johnson is a package deal: expansion of aid for expansion of natural gas exports. In late January, President Biden issued an executive order pausing approvals of new liquefied natural gas export permits to examine climate impacts. The House passed a bill to roll the decision back, but the Senate has taken no action. 

It’s not clear if any of these proposals satisfy the Ukraine-skeptics in the GOP conference. Rep. Chip Roy pointed to the yet-unanswered questions about America’s long term goals and funding priorities: “No matter the funding ‘structure,’” he tweeted, “what’s the mission advancing American national security? – and where’s American border security? Asking for a friend.”

Rep. Thomas Massie also raised concerns with how Speaker Johnson may bring this bill to the floor – including if he will honor the House’s rule allowing for 72-hours to read pending legislation before it is voted on, and if he will use the suspension calendar. As I’ve noted previously, Johnson’s speakership thus far has been characterized by using a process known as “suspension of the rules,” which circumvents the Rules Committee and bars amendments. It also requires a higher threshold for passage – 290 instead of the normal 218 – which means Johnson has been relying on more votes from Democrats than Republicans to usher his legislation through.

One other option that Johnson has which he does not appear to be considering: he could just not take up the aid. The Senate bill wrapped aid for Ukraine, Taiwan, Israel, and funds for conflicts in the Red Sea into one giant package. Peeling that onion doesn’t require each part to be considered – what comes to the House floor is, ultimately, up to the Speaker. As a reminder, this next $60 billion in aid comes on top of the roughly $74 billion that the U.S. has already sent Ukraine since January, 2022: 

The White House doesn’t seem particularly vexed about trade-offs, however. In addition to the billions spent in the so-called Inflation Reduction Act, the trillions spent in the most recent appropriations process, and the billions requested in foreign aid, the Biden administration is now vowing that the federal government will cover the cost to rebuild Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge. 

The bridge was struck by a cargo ship last week and collapsed. The total cost of rebuilding it is estimated to be anywhere between $400 million to $2 billion. The Federal Highway Administration has already sent $60 million to kick off repairs. Left unsaid is whether the state of Maryland or the owner of the cargo vessel that hit the bridge have any financial responsibility. The cargo company is already seeking to limit their damages.

Biden will visit Baltimore to survey the damage on Friday. Lest he worry he might face congressional intransigence on appropriating repair funds, Biden’s close Senate ally, Mitch McConnell, is fully on board with the government paying for most of the work.  

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One More Thing…

Speaker and author Coleman Hughes recently went on The View to discuss his new book, “The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America.” Every now and then The View brings on a guest who shoots the IQ of the group through the roof. This 10-minute snippet from his interview is worth watching in its entirety.