Johnson says he expects to take up Ukraine aid with Democratic votes

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, West Virginia — Speaker Mike Johnson told POLITICO that he expects to pass a future Ukraine assistance bill with Democratic votes, an acknowledgment of the persistent resistance to any new aid within the GOP.

Johnson said in a Thursday interview at the House Republican retreat that aid to both Ukraine and Israel could come up as one or even two separate bills. He said he anticipates it would happen using the House’s suspension calendar, which he’s used often in recent days to overcome pushback from his own party.

“I think it is a stand-alone, and I suspect it will need to be on suspension,” Johnson said of foreign assistance.

The Louisiana Republican added in clear terms that he sees no path to attaching the foreign aid to a larger spending bill to keep the government open.

The suspension calendar requires a two-thirds majority to approve legislation on the House floor — meaning Johnson would need a substantial number of Democratic votes. He has taken that approach with many contentious measures so far in his speakership.

He added in the interview that splitting Ukraine and Israel aid into two separate bills was “under consideration.”

The speaker’s remarks are the most definitive he has made so far on his plans for tens of billions of dollars in foreign aid that has languished in Congress for many weeks, even after the Senate cleared its own bipartisan package last month. They represent the clearest move Johnson has made to commit to a floor vote on Ukraine aid, despite significant disinterest in his own party in any new funding for Kyiv’s efforts against Russia.

Johnson has publicly stated that the House would turn to foreign aid after a government funding plan that’s expected to come to the floor of both chambers of Congress next week, with a partial shutdown deadline looming on March 22. While the political challenges of passing that funding bill have sparked questions about attaching foreign aid to a spending bill, he ruled out the idea.

“I don’t think leaders of either side of the aisle think that’s a viable option,” Johnson said in the interview.

He’ll certainly need to consult with Democrats to have any hope of passing foreign aid on the suspensions calendar, which GOP leaders have used for multiple high-stakes bills that would otherwise have failed to get the near-unanimous Republican support needed to pass along party lines. A spokesperson for House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries did not immediately return a request for comment on the speaker’s remarks.

Johnson also projected optimism that lawmakers would be able to put to bed a six-month ordeal of avoiding a government shutdown. He said he didn’t expect that Congress would need another short-term spending patch, looking ahead to a release of that funding plan — including critical cash for the Pentagon — over the weekend.

CNN first reported that Johnson was weighing a stand-alone Israel aid bill. The House has already passed an Israel aid bill paired with IRS cuts that made it a non-starter in the Senate.

The speaker’s comments about foreign aid come as the Biden administration and other officials warn Ukraine is running out of ammunition in its fight against Russia. Taking up any aid bill in the House, however, would hand political weaponry to Johnson’s conservative critics, some of whom have warned that he could face a forced ouster vote if he moves forward on it.

During earlier retreat remarks to reporters, Johnson seemed to dismiss the prospect of confronting the same ejection vote that doomed his predecessor, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

McCarthy is out of Congress now, but Johnson also revealed that he keeps in touch with the California Republican. Their conversations don’t typically touch on “guidance or advice,” Johnson said, though McCarthy would “offer that if asked.” Instead, the new speaker described the former gavel-wielder as “a great partner on the fundraising side.”

McCarthy has “assisted our efforts” to keep the House majority this fall, Johnson said, “and paved the way for me to meet a lot of the kind of high-level donors that I didn’t have relationships with. So to his credit, he’s done a really good job.”

Johnson and McCarthy will be co-headlining a California fundraising event in the coming weeks. Both are throwing their weight behind Vince Fong, a California Assembly member who is vying to fill McCarthy’s seat in a special election.

The speaker also took care to describe his relationship with the raucous conservative Freedom Caucus — which helped make McCarthy’s time in power exceedingly difficult — as a positive one. Asked if his connection to the bloc had changed since taking over the House GOP, Johnson said that “it hasn’t.”

“Philosophically, I’ve always been aligned. It is the tactics that we disagree upon,” he added of the Freedom Caucus. “I am a lifelong movement conservative, so there’s very little daylight between their core principles and mine. It’s the tactics that we have disagreements upon, but it’s never personal to me.”

While some Republicans are privately suggesting that they expect Johnson to step aside if Democrats take back the House this fall, the speaker shrugged off questions about his plans for a future in the top spot.

“I haven’t even considered that. I’m focused on keeping a growing majority and governing through the end of this Congress,” Johnson said when asked whether he will seek to remain in charge regardless of whether the GOP keeps the majority.

Whether it’s for speaker or minority leader, of course, he may face challengers in any 2025 leadership election. Johnson’s current No. 2 and No. 3, Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), both tried and failed to win the speakership last fall before he claimed the job.

But when asked about the possibility of some fellow leadership members running against him next year, Johnson also demurred, saying he hasn’t “given thought” to it and later expressing confidence in his team.

One thing that is on his mind: the House GOP’s agenda, if it can hang onto the majority.

Johnson said if the border remains unaddressed at that time, House Republicans will certainly make that their top priority. But he also cited “confronting China,” tax reform, and energy policy that ensures the U.S. keeps its “dominance” in the space — as well as a potential task force on artificial intelligence and the usual GOP vow to “rein in spending.”

“There are a lot of important issues that we’re anxious to address. And if we had the majorities to do it, we’ll do big, substantive things.”

Nicholas Wu and Jordain Carney contributed to this report.

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