Facing a Republican revolt, House Speaker Johnson pushes ahead on U.S. aid for Ukraine, allies

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., and the House Republican leadership meet with reporters following a closed-door Republican strategy session as Johnson pushes towards separate votes on aid for Israel and Ukraine, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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By LISA MASCARO

AP Congressional Correspondent

WASHINGTON (AP) — Defiant and determined, House Speaker Mike Johnson pushed back Tuesday against mounting Republican anger over his proposed U.S. aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other allies, and rejected a call to step aside or risk a vote to oust him from office.

“I am not resigning,” Johnson said after a testy morning meeting of fellow House Republicans at the Capitol

Johnson referred to himself as a “wartime speaker” of the House and indicated in his strongest self-defense yet he would press forward with a U.S. national security aid package, a situation that would force him to rely on Democrats to help pass it, over objections from his weakened majority.

“We are simply here trying to do our jobs,” Johnson said, calling the motion to oust him “absurd … not helpful.”

Tuesday brought a definitive shift in tone from both the House Republicans and the speaker himself at a pivotal moment as the embattled leader tries, against the wishes of his majority, to marshal the votes needed to send the stalled national security aid for Israel, Ukraine and other overseas allies to passage.

Johnson appeared emboldened by his meeting late last week at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida when the Republican former president threw him a political lifeline with a nod of support. At his own press conference Tuesday, Johnson spoke of the importance of ensuring Trump, who is now at his criminal trial in New York, is re-elected to the White House.

Johnson also spoke over the weekend with President Joe Biden as well as other congressional leaders about the emerging U.S. aid package, which the speaker plans to move in separate votes for each section — with bills for Ukraine, Israel, the Indo-Pacific region. He spoke to Biden about it again late Monday.

After Johnson briefed the president, White House officials said they were taking a wait-and-see approach until the text of the speaker’s plan is released and the procedural pathway becomes more clear.

“It does appear at first blush, that the speaker’s proposal will, in fact, help us get aid to Ukraine, aid to Israel and needed resources to the Indo-Pacific for a wide range of contingencies there,” John Kirby, the White House’s national security spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday.

The speaker is considering a complicated approach that would break apart the Senate’s $95 billion aid package for separate votes, and then either stitch it back together or send the components to the Senate for final passage, and potentially onto the White House for the president’s signature.

All told, it would require the speaker to cobble together bipartisan majorities with different factions of House Republicans and Democrats on each measure.

Additionally, Johnson is preparing a fourth measure that would include various Republican-preferred national security priorities, such as a plan to seize some Russian assets in U.S. banks to help fund Ukraine and another to turn the economic aid for Ukraine into loans. It could also include provisions to sanction Iran over its weekend attack on Israel, among others.

The speaker’s emerging plan is not an automatic deal-breaker for Democrats in the House and Senate, with leaders refraining from comment until text details are released. They were due later Tuesday — though as the afternoon dragged on that was uncertain.

During their own closed-door meeting, Leader Hakeem Jeffries said House Democrats would not accept a “penny less” than the $9 billion in humanitarian aid that senators had included in their package with money for Gaza, according to a person granted anonymity to discuss it.

Johnson will need Democratic votes to pass aspects of his package, but Democratic support for Israel is slipping in both the House and Senate amid the Netanyahu government’s retaliatory bombardment of Gaza that has left 30,000 people dead. A previous House GOP bill for Israel gutted the assistance for Gaza.

House Republicans, meanwhile, were livid that Johnson would be leaving their top priority — efforts to impose more security at the U.S.-Mexico border — on the sidelines. Some predicted Johnson will not be able to push ahead with voting on the package this week, as planned.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., called the morning meeting an “argument fest.”

When the speaker said the House GOP’s priority border security bill H.R. 2 would not be considered germane to the package, Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, a chief sponsor, said it’s for the House to determine which provisions and amendments are relevant.

“Things are very unresolved,” Roy said.

Roy said said Republicans want “to be united. They just have to be able to figure out how to do it.”

The speaker faces a threat of ouster from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., the top Trump ally who has filed a motion to vacate the speaker from office in a snap vote — much the way Republicans ousted their former speaker, Kevin McCarthy, last fall..

While Greene has not said if or when she will force the issue, and has not found much support for her plan after last year’s turmoil over McCarthy’s exit, she drew at least one key backer Tuesday.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., rose in the meeting and suggested Johnson should step aside, pointing to the example of John Boehner, an even earlier House speaker who announced an early resignation in 2015 rather than risk a vote to oust him, according to Republicans in the room.

“Speaker Johnson must announce a resignation date and allow Republicans to elect a new Speaker to put America First and pass a Republican agenda,” Greene wrote on social media, thanking Massie for his support for her motion to vacate.

Johnson did not respond, according to Republicans in the room, but told the lawmakers they have a “binary” choice” before them.

The speaker explained they either try to pass the package as he is proposing or risk facing a discharge petition from Democrats that would force a vote on their preferred package — the Senate approved measure. But that would leave behind the extra Republican priorities.

As the House debates, Ukraine is facing increasing difficulty fighting the Russian invasion.

Lawmakers have stepped up their efforts to explain to Americans that the overseas aid largely flows to U.S. defense manufacturers to bolster production of missiles, munitions and other military provisions then sent abroad.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said this week on social media the U.S. and others’ response to Iran’s attack on Israel shows the potential of what can be done with “allied action.”