Analysis | Senate Republicans forced the issue on Ukraine aid. Now comes the hard part.

Last week, Senate Republicans capitulated when the House GOP signaled it wouldn’t take up a bipartisan bill that combined border security with funding for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. Rather than forcing the issue by showing how much Senate GOP support the bill had, even the deal’s supporters voted against proceeding with it.

This week, Senate Republicans went in a very different direction.

Despite House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) signaling again that the House wouldn’t vote on the aid bill that stripped out the border security measures, 22 Senate Republicans voted for it. The bill passed 70-29.

The question now becomes just how much pressure the GOP senators have applied, and how committed the party’s foreign policy hawks are to compelling the House to act. The internal and inter-chamber GOP clash that was forestalled on the border security deal might well be coming on the Ukraine-Israel-Taiwan supplemental.

The Senate vote reinforced something that has been plainly evident: that these pieces of legislation in all likelihood have strong majority support in both chambers. To the extent they’re not going to become law, it’s because House Republicans refuse to allow a vote.

The Senate vote demonstrated that — in spades. Getting 70 votes on something major is rare in this polarized age. It received the votes not just of 71 percent of senators who were voting, but 46 percent of Republican senators.

The level of support echoed how the House has voted on Ukraine funding — the bulk of the aid bill — in the past. Every Ukraine funding vote in the House has received at least 73 percent support. Ukraine funding opponent Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) reportedly acknowledged Tuesday, “If it were to get to the floor, it would pass; let’s just be frank about that.”

Ukraine aid epitomizes an increasingly broken Congress

There have been instances in which the House has punted on issues receiving around this level of Senate support, but not many:

  • In 1999, 73 senators voted to require background checks for purchases at gun shows, but the House didn’t vote on it.
  • In 2009, 61 senators voted to give Washington, D.C., a vote in the House, while also adding a seat in Utah. The House again didn’t act.
  • In 2013, the House declined to take up a bipartisan Senate immigration bill that passed 68-32.
  • This GOP-controlled House has yet to vote this Congress on a bill the Senate passed 66-30 in March 2023 to repeal the authorizations for use of military force (AUMFs) for the Iraq War.

That 2013 immigration vote might be the most direct comparison. But it was far less clear that the bill had such a degree of bipartisan support. Just 14 of 46 GOP senators voted for it. And even the bill’s Senate supporters backed away from pressing the House to act. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who faced attacks from the right for a deal he helped forge and sell, rather remarkably wound up telling the House not to pass or even negotiate with the Senate over his own bill.

The justification for the House not voting on this bill would likely be that it doesn’t have majority support in the House GOP, which is a key threshold that House leadership often uses. Republican support for funding Ukraine has gradually fallen since Russia’s February 2022 invasion, to the point where the last funding vote received 46 percent support in the House GOP — the same figure from Tuesday’s Senate vote.

But that doesn’t mean Republicans who support the aid can’t try, and 22 Senate Republicans have at least gotten the ball rolling.

There is already talk among Democrats of a discharge petition, in which a vote can be forced by a majority of the House — i.e. the vast majority of Democrats and enough House GOP foreign policy hawks. If a similar percentage of House Democrats supported the bill as Senate Democrats (just three on their side voted no on Tuesday), you’d need fewer than two dozen House Republicans to support a discharge petition.

This option is regularly floated but rarely invoked. It requires not just a majority of the House to support something, but enough members of the majority party willing to buck their own leadership in a very confrontational way.

It would seemingly remain unlikely. But if there were ever a time in which it would seem viable, it might be on an issue that its supporters feel as strongly about as combating a Russian invasion and at a time in which the power of the speaker is so diminished. GOP hawks could also pressure Johnson merely by threatening to go down this road.

There are other options on the table, including those GOP hawks forcing the issue by trying to gum up the works in other ways, such as through the rules process — a tactic the hard-right has used to significant effect.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), a supporter of the aid, has gone so far as to predict the House will ultimately somehow vote for the aid. He said, “The speaker will need to bring it to the floor.”

“We believe that there is overwhelming support in the House and the Senate,” Turner said, “and this will get done.”

(Turner also floated the idea of Democrats saving Johnson’s speakership if the party’s hard-right, anti-Ukraine funding wing sought to oust him. Democrats declined to do so when Republicans ousted Kevin McCarthy of California from the speakership last year.)

Also key is just how dead-set Johnson is against having a vote. He has voted against Ukraine funding in the past while expressing concern about accountability and the cost, and he drew a line in the sand this week. But he has also made a point to play up the importance of supporting Ukraine.

“Now, we can’t allow Vladimir Putin to prevail in Ukraine, because I don’t believe it would stop there, and it would probably encourage and empower China to perhaps make a move on Taiwan,” Johnson told Fox News shortly after becoming speaker. “We have these concerns. We’re not going to abandon them.”

Johnson certainly must feel the need to demonstrate to Ukraine funding critics that he’s not bowing to the Senate. But those kinds of comments would seem to make punting altogether on the funding rather discordant.

And Senate Republicans have now forced him into some very significant choices on an issue of huge, worldwide importance — in a way they declined to last week.

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