Senate Delivers Foreign Aid Bill Into The Unreliable Hands Of Speaker Mike Johnson

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 06: U.S. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) makes his way to a House Republican caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on February 06, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
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Much to Speaker Mike Johnson’s (R-LA) chagrin, the Senate managed to pass a bundle of foreign aid early Tuesday morning. 

The bill, having been wrenched from the jaws of death by Senate Democrats and several Republicans, will now bedevil Johnson as he decides whether to a) keep it from the floor altogether to protect his gavel, b) let his members vote on it and risk losing his job to the motion to vacate or c) try to devise some version of his own bill, which would surely die in the Senate.

The bill’s passage through the Senate was a minor miracle unto itself after Republicans abruptly turned on an earlier iteration of it. That version included immigration measures Republicans had demanded in exchange for helping pass the aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. They’d dispatched the very conservative Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) to work long weeks crafting a bill acceptable to them. 

As Republicans recognized, they were unusually well positioned to get a hard-liner immigration bill without having to make the usual concessions — including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. — that Democrats ordinarily would have demanded. Democrats, and President Joe Biden in particular, have been overwhelmed by Republican attacks on the “crisis at the border,” and were eager for a legislative victory in that arena.  

Just a few weeks back, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that it was an “ideal” time to pass the border bill, pointing out that it’d amassed a rare bipartisan coalition given the famously incendiary nature of the issue. 

Enter: Donald Trump. Trump, aware of how powerful his immigration cudgel is, didn’t want to lose it for the rest of the campaign. So he instructed his foot soldiers — including Johnson — to kill the deal before the text had even been finalized.  

“Why would I help Joe Biden improve his dismal 33 percent, when he can fix the border and secure it on his own?” Rep. Troy Nehls (R-TX) asked angrily as he waved around his cigar, referencing Biden’s approval ratings and a Republican talking point that Biden can just magically halt all immigration at the southern border via executive action. 

So, after Senate Republicans insisted that the foreign aid be linked to punitive immigration measures to earn their votes, they promptly killed the border bill they’d demanded — and passed the aid alone on Tuesday anyway. Trump had lobbied his Senate allies to kill the standalone aid as well, though they seemed generally less under his sway after capitulating on the immigration piece, voting for final passage of the bill 70 to 29 (he may have lost some credibility on the matter by encouraging Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to NATO members earlier this week). 

That sound you hear is Lankford’s wailing and gnashing of teeth. For his efforts, members of his state’s Republican Party attempted to censure him. The Senate’s movement of the bill is an appropriate coda on a ludicrous few weeks, showcasing Republicans’ cynicism, naked electoral calculations and, above all, ever increasing fealty to Trump. 

Now, it heads to the House, where its future is dicey. Johnson is contending with dueling factions. From the right flank, a small group vehemently opposes Ukraine aid, and at least one member — who else but Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) — has promised to trigger the motion to vacate if Johnson puts it on the floor. House Democrats and some more moderate Republicans, though, badly want to pass Ukraine aid, and may revolt if Johnson tries to pretend the Senate bill doesn’t exist. 

Still, Johnson indicated on Monday that he would try the plugging-his-fingers-in-his-ears-and shouting-“la la la” approach under the guise of that old standby, demanding that border measures be added back in after promising to kill the former version of the bill that included those provisions. 

“The Senate did the right thing last week by rejecting the Ukraine-Taiwan-Israel-Immigration legislation due to its insufficient border provisions, and it should have gone back to the drawing board to amend the current bill to include real security provisions that would actually help end the ongoing catastrophe,” he said in a statement. 

He added: “Now, in the absence of having received any single border policy change from the Senate, the House will have to continue to work its own will on these important matters.” 

Again, this is not a real complaint; it was widely acknowledged that the Lankford bill was unusually favorable to Republicans’ preferences, especially in an issue area typically so radioactive as to nip any legislating in the bud. And Johnson is likely alluding to a return to HR 2, House Republicans’ dream immigration bill that would promptly die upon reaching the Senate if it could even pass through the House. 

“the speaker said he wouldn’t pass ukraine funding without a border deal and we got a deal and then he killed the deal because he said we didn’t need a deal and now he says he won’t pass our ukraine funding bill bc it doesn’t include a border deal,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), the head Democratic negotiator on the foreign aid-immigration deal, tweeted in lower-cased incredulity. “honestly wtf.” 

So this is mostly a time-buying statement from Johnson, in keeping with these House Republicans’ modus operandi: In the absence of any actual plan, just keep up the appearance of forward momentum. 

“The good news is that Johnson has publicly stated that we’ve got to do something on the border before we do anything like that,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) said on right-wing “The John Fredericks Show” Tuesday morning, adding: “If it were to get to the floor, it would pass — let’s just be frank about that.”

There’s been some chatter about using a discharge petition, the rarely successful mechanism where a majority of House members circumvent leadership to get a bill onto the floor. Such a maneuver would require some Republican buy-in. Others have also mulled splitting up the foreign aid into three separate buckets, something neither sure to work (look at the fast-tracked Israeli aid bill that failed last week) nor at all likely to muster Democratic support, given that it would endanger funding for Ukraine. 

It’s quite the pickle for Johnson, who may have his hands full running back the attempt to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the collapse of which last week stands out as one of the most impressive rake-steps in a short tenure full of them. 

“Now it’s up to the House: Meet this moment, do the right thing and save democracy,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Tuesday at a press conference. “If the hard right kills this bill, it would be an enormous gift to Vladimir Putin. It would be a betrayal of our partners and allies, and an abandonment of our service members.”

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Notable Replies

  1. It doesn’t matter what the Senate does, Johnson is a child with one word, no.

  2. Putin’s new man in Washington, DC:


  3. The truly infuriating part of this whole circus is how painfully impotent Democrats have been in hanging this really horrible, rotting, putrid, albatross around the necks of their Republican colleagues who clearly don’t want to fix the “urgent immigration crisis” but just like having some human suffering sprinkles on their Trumpian Sh*t Sundae.

    It makes you just want to take ALL of DC and flip it upside down over the North Sea, give it a good shake, and start over.

  4. That’s a message that deserves repeating. Whether it breaks “comity” or not, Dems in Congress should always refer to him as Putin Ally Mike Johnson.

  5. ‘johnson’ is the word.

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