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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Johnson needs Democrats on Ukraine, handing them power to shape aid plan

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) leaves after a vote on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. Massie joined Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s effort to remove Speaker Mike Johnson. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

By Annie Karni

Speaker Mike Johnson’s elaborate plan for pushing aid to Ukraine through the House over his own party’s objections relies on an unusual strategy: He is counting on House Democrats and their leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, to provide the votes necessary to clear the way for it to come to the floor.

If Democrats were to provide those crucial votes, it would mark the second time in two years that Republican leaders have had to turn to the minority party to rescue them from their own recalcitrant right-wing colleagues in order to allow major legislation to be debated and voted on.

Given Republicans’ tiny margin of control, Johnson, R-La., will need their support on the aid itself. But before he even gets to that, he will need their votes on a procedural motion, known as a rule, to even bring the legislation to the floor — an unconventional expectation of the minority party.

That puts Democrats once again in a strange but strong position, wielding substantial influence over the measure, including which proposed changes, if any, are allowed to be voted on and how the foreign aid is structured. After all, Johnson knows that if they are unsatisfied and choose to withhold their votes, the legislation risks imploding before it even comes up.

The dynamic also increases the likelihood that Johnson will need Democrats again — to save his precarious speakership, now under threat from two members of his party, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Thomas Massie of Kentucky. They are enraged at his strategy for sending aid to Ukraine and every day appear to be edging closer to calling a vote to oust him from his post.

“We’re steering toward everything Chuck Schumer wants,” Massie said Tuesday, referring to the Democratic Senate majority leader from New York. (Without Democratic help, Johnson can afford to lose two Republicans, if all members are present and voting, meaning the legislation to send aid to Ukraine would be dead far before arrival.)

Republican leaders have yet to release the text of any of the four bills that together will make up the aid package for aid to Israel, Ukraine and other U.S. allies. And there are plenty of opportunities for the bipartisan coalition of support that would be needed to push it through the House to be derailed.

But Democrats have begun laying out their terms.

Jeffries told his caucus on Tuesday during a closed-door meeting that he would not be willing to support any package that included less than the $9 billion in humanitarian aid that was part of the national security bill passed by the Senate.

House Republicans previously pushed through an aid bill for Israel that omitted humanitarian aid for civilians in the Gaza Strip, and some have recently suggested that any further aid for Ukraine should be restricted to military funding. But Jeffries called preserving humanitarian aid a “red line” for Democrats, according to a person familiar with his private remarks who described them on the condition of anonymity.

“We need $9 billion in humanitarian aid,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. “That’s what is required to deal with Ukraine, Sudan, Somalia, Haiti and Gaza.”

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the new chair of the Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday he expected the humanitarian aid to be included in the bill.

For more than two decades, the “rule,” a bit of congressional arcana that few who work outside of Capitol Hill ever pay attention to, was treated as a foregone conclusion and a straight party-line vote. Even if lawmakers planned to break with the party on a bill, they would stay in line on the rule to bring it up, voting “yes” if they were in the majority and “no” for the minority.

But that quaint tradition has fallen by the wayside during this Congress, as rebellious House Republicans have routinely tanked rule votes to exert their leverage and win concessions in a slim majority where they hold outsize power.

“It’s the only tool they have in the toolbox,” said Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn. “It’s legal; it’s in the rules.”

When the procedural resistance of the hard right has threatened to scuttle legislation that Democrats consider existential — a bill to defuse the threat of catastrophic debt default, for one, or one to arm a democratic ally facing an invading dictator — they, too, have shown a willingness to break with convention on the rule.

Last year, 52 Democrats voted in favor of the rule to bring up the debt ceiling bill negotiated by the speaker at the time, Kevin McCarthy, and President Joe Biden, helping the hamstrung GOP leader push through the measure. In the end, 29 Republicans voted against the rule.

Far-right Republicans have been enraged by the results. After McCarthy struck the debt deal, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said, “We’re going to force him into a monogamous relationship with one or the other,” referring to his cohort of right-wing Republicans or Democrats. “What we’re not going to do is hang out with him for five months and then watch him go jump in the back seat with Hakeem Jeffries and sell the nation out.”

Ultimately, McCarthy ended up in a relationship with no one; Democrats did not vote to save him when Gaetz called a snap vote to oust him and was joined by seven Republicans in voting for him to go.

Johnson is also walking a delicate line. He has to tend to the politics of his own fractured conference without alienating the Democrats whom he will need to pass the security package — and, potentially, to save his job.

In an interview Tuesday morning with Fox News, Johnson accused Democrats of turning their backs on Israel and of “appeasing the pro-Hamas wing of their party.”

For now, Democrats are willing to overlook such statements and appear to be leaning toward doing what they think is right: supporting Johnson’s Ukraine aid play, and the speaker himself. While they have yet to see the plan and are reserving judgment on it, many said they would like to find a way to make it work.

“I’m more optimistic than I have been before,” Rep. Hillary Scholten, D-Mich., said of the House actually moving ahead with aid to Ukraine.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Fla., said: “If what the speaker is bringing is the Senate bill chopped up — just procedurally different but policy-wise the same — I can’t see why we would get in the way of that.”

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