US House speaker ‘anxious’ to pass Israel, Ukraine aid as far-right mutiny brews

Johnson leans on Democrat support as isolationist GOP members in Trump camp threaten ouster over funding for Kyiv’s defense; flirtation with procedural change forces backpedalling

US House of Representatives speaker, Mike Johnson, meets with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, April 16, 2024. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
US House of Representatives speaker, Mike Johnson, meets with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, April 16, 2024. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — Leaders of the United States House of Representatives were toiling Thursday on a delicate, bipartisan push toward weekend votes to approve a $95 billion (NIS 360 billion) package of foreign aid for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan, as well as several other national security policies at a critical moment in the United States and beyond.

Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson this week set in motion a plan to advance the package, which has been held up since October by GOP lawmakers resistant to approving more funding for Ukraine’s fight against Russia. As the Republican speaker faced an outright rebellion from his right flank and growing threats for his ouster, it became clear that House Democrat Leader Hakeem Jeffries would have to lend help to Johnson every step of the way.

“This is a very important message we are going to send to the world this week, and I’m anxious to get it done,” Johnson said earlier Wednesday announcing his strategy.

Johnson is trying to advance a complex plan to hold individual votes this weekend on the funds for Israel, Ukraine, and US allies in the Asia Pacific region, then stitch the package back together.

Given the high stakes of the moment for Israel, Ukraine, and other US allies, and Johnson’s inability to marshal enough Republican support, the speaker had no choice but to rely on Democrats to pass the national security package.

Late Thursday night, the four Democrats on the House Rules Committee voted for a procedural move to advance the bill to the House floor, while three arch-conservative Republicans voted against it.

File – Former US President Donald Trump arrives at Manhattan criminal court on April 16, 2024, in New York. (AP/Mary Altaffer, Pool)

Johnson’s Republican leadership team, seizing on the opportunity to outflank hardline conservatives with Democratic support, raised the idea of quickly changing the procedural rules to make it harder to oust the speaker from office.

But ultra-conservatives reacted with fury, angrily confronting Johnson on the House floor in a tense scene on Thursday morning. Several suggested they would join the effort to oust Johnson if the rule was changed. By the afternoon, Johnson backed away from the idea.

“We will continue to govern under the existing rules,” the speaker said on the social platform X.

At the Capitol, the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus urged Republicans to block the package from advancing to a final vote. The group demanded that sweeping immigration enforcement be added to the bill and derided it as the “‘America Last’ foreign wars supplemental package.”

The Israel aid bill furnishes the country with $26.38 billion, part of which will go toward reimbursing US military operations in response to Iran’s weekend missile and drone strike on Israel in response to an alleged Israeli airstrike in Damascus, which killed seven Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members, including two generals, near Iran’s embassy in the Syrian capital.

Some $5.2 billion will go toward replenishing and expanding Israel’s missile and rocket defense system. Another $3.5 billion will go to purchasing advanced weapons systems, $1 billion to enhance weapons production and $4.4 billion for other supplies and services provided to Israel.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, February 7, 2024. (AP/Jose Luis Magana)

The bill will also prohibit funds going to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides support to Palestinian refugees, while earmarking $9 billion for Palestinian relief.

Israel has for years criticized UNRWA, saying it propagates the Palestinian refugee problem in an effort to undermine the Jewish state. The criticism reached a new high after Israel accused a dozen of the aid agency’s workers of participating in Hamas’s October 7 shock assault on the country, when thousands of terrorists killed nearly 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and took over 250 hostage, sparking the ongoing war in Gaza.

Johnson’s decision to pursue the aid bills separately reflects growing opposition from his caucus’s right flank toward further aid to Ukraine. Far-right Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has threatened to oust Johnson over the Ukraine aid.

Support for Israel, meanwhile, remains nearly unanimous among congressional Republicans, even as some Democrats are opposed to continued support for Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip given its large civilian casualty toll and the humanitarian crisis it has effected in the Strip.

File – Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican-Georgia, listens during a US House Homeland Security Committee meeting at the Capitol in Washington, January 30, 2024. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 33,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes some 13,000 Hamas gunmen Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

In addition to the Israel aid, the legislative package advanced by Johnson would also empower the US to seize frozen Russian central bank assets to rebuild Ukraine; impose sanctions on Iran, Russia, China and criminal organizations that traffic the painkiller fentanyl, which has fueled the US’s already dire opioid crisis; and potentially ban the video app TikTok if its China-based owner doesn’t sell its stake within a year.

If the House can clear the package this weekend, it still must go to the Senate for another round of voting.

US President Joe Biden is emphatically pushing Congress to pass the legislation to buttress what has been a cornerstone of his foreign policy — halting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advance in Europe.

President Joe Biden speaks at the United Steelworkers Headquarters in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, April 17, 2024. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

Johnson is trying to remain close to Biden’s challenger in the upcoming election, former President Donald Trump, while positioning the national security package as a way to assert US strength in the world in the mold of Ronald Reagan-era Republicans, which puts the speaker politically at odds with the anti-interventionists powering the former president’s bid to return to the White House.

“Why isn’t Europe giving more money to help Ukraine?” Trump wrote on social media, without explicitly opposing the foreign aid package before the US Congress.

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