House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) this week made one of his first big decisions as the new head of the House GOP, joining with Republicans who want to withhold aid for Ukraine to defend itself from a Russian army accused of war crimes so they can use it as a bargaining chip for more U.S. border security.
The issue of whether and to what degree to support Ukraine following Russia’s February 2022 invasion has split Republicans in the House and, to a lesser extent, in the Senate as well.
But this heightens the risk of a showdown with the White House and Democrats, who are largely united in backing Ukraine and warn that abandoning support will only encourage other authoritarian governments around the world.
The Motherland Monument, which recently reopened for public viewing, is seen through fog in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Saturday.
Johnson specifically cited the work of a group of House Republicans, led by Reps. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.) and Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), who have proposed what Crenshaw called a “grand bargain”: Ukraine would only get help if the administration agreed to make GOP-approved changes on border security, like altering the asylum process.
On Monday, Crenshaw laid out what he said would be a “win-win” for both parties.
“Democrats want Ukraine aid more than Republicans want it. Republicans want border security more than Democrats want it. So we need to make a deal,” he told reporters at a press conference.
Johnson did not explicitly endorse Crenshaw and Garcia’s proposed bargain in the Hannity interview, but his concerns about the administration’s Ukraine policy closely echoed theirs.
Johnson said he gave national security adviser Jake Sullivan a list of public questions from Garcia on the potential cost to the U.S. to help Kyiv to win, including queries about whether the government thinks Ukraine can retake the Crimean Peninsula and about the progress of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The White House has proposed a $106 billion supplemental spending bill that would provide aid for Ukraine, Israel and allies in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as for beefing up border security.
But Johnson said House Republicans would not go for that and would instead propose $14 billion in stand-alone aid for Israel. He did not say if any conditions, like those put forward for Ukraine aid, would be tied to that money.
“I told the staff at the White House today that our consensus among House Republicans is that we need to bifurcate those issues,” Johnson said. “I told the staff there: This is where we are. This is where the House Republicans are.”
Ukraine has been a divisive topic among House Republicans, with most initially supporting the country at the start of its war. But with former President Donald Trump often echoing Moscow’s talking points that this could lead to wider conflict, most Republicans now oppose further help.
A series of votes on the House floor in September showed a conference split almost evenly. Opponents of further aid point to a vote on a small $300 million troop training program, and on creating a new inspector general for Ukraine aid, as a sign that the majority of the party is in their corner: 117 of the 221 House Republicans, or 52.9%, voted against it. The bill passed with a mix of 311 Democratic and Republican votes.
And some Ukraine defenders may just be going along as a negotiating strategy. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who has an “A” rating from the group Republicans for Ukraine, objected to the characterization of Ukraine aid being held hostage for border security.
“I would say they’re holding border security hostage and have been for two years,” he said, adding that opponents of aid should not be asked to vote for something they don’t like without having an opportunity to vote for something they do like.
“I won’t fashion that deal,” Cole said of Crenshaw and Garcia’s gambit. “But I would support it.”
Yet for a White House and a party where the president has cast both Israel and Ukraine as democratic partners in a global fight against rising autocracy, that kind of political horse-trading may be anathema.
“No, no, no, no, no. Hold on. There are 300 votes on the floor of the House for assistance to Ukraine. Three hundred votes,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
“That’s not a political vote. It’s a vote of, do we support an ally or do we not support an ally?” he said. “This is not a party issue.”
Still, the White House has already conceded a little to Republicans by including $13.6 billion in the supplemental spending proposal for things like additional border patrol agents, immigration judges and asylum officers.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said that’s not enough. He wants to see the reinstatement of the controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy, in which asylum claims are adjudicated while applicants wait outside U.S. borders.
Meanwhile, Kyiv and its allies watch as Ukrainian armed forces prepare for the fall muddy season that will make battlefield advances harder. At the same time, the Russian army continues to indiscriminately bomb civilian targets daily, an alleged war crime, on top of reports from liberated regions that Russians murdered and tortured civilians and used rape as a weapon of war.
Mira Rubin, a Ukrainian-born U.S. citizen who was visiting Washington as part of a lobbying effort this week on Ukraine’s behalf, said reports of atrocities in Israel underline how aid for it and Ukraine should not be pitted against each other.
“I relived Bucha, I relived all the war atrocities that I lived a year ago through what happened in Israel right now,” she told HuffPost, referring to a suburb of the Ukrainian capital where Russians are accused of killing 1,100 people in two months of occupation. Rubin runs a Ukrainian cultural museum in San Diego.
“Israel needs to be defended right now, and they need to defend themselves. So does Ukraine,” she said.
“If we want to prevent this World War III and having American troops there, we’ve got to help Ukraine win, and win as fast as possible.”