Speaker Johnson tells Senate GOP he backs Ukraine aid, funding path through Jan. 15

Speaker Johnson tells Senate GOP he backs Ukraine aid, funding path through Jan. 15

Speaker Mike Johnson told Senate Republicans on Wednesday that he supports aiding Ukraine — though he drew a hard line against combining it with money for Israel.

Johnson’s stance presents a challenge to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who want to stitch together funding for Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and U.S.-Mexico border security. But the newly elected speaker did give senators something to work with by making clear that he supports new money for Ukraine’s defense against Russia, even if it’s not comparable in size or scope to what President Joe Biden wants.

Johnson also told senators that beefed-up border security and Ukraine funding are “inextricably intertwined,” according to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). Effectively, the Louisiana Republican signaled that he views Israel funding as one debate, and a border-Ukraine negotiation as entirely separate.

Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) said that if Johnson were to try and combine all of the moving parts that Schumer and McConnell want blended, “his caucus would revolt and it would probably be the end of the speakership.”

“He said over and over, ‘Listen — for me it’s just numbers. I cannot do them together,’” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said of Johnson’s position on Ukraine and Israel.

The new speaker also underscored that he wants to dodge any Senate attempt to jam him with a year-end, catch-all federal spending bill — the sort of legislation that passed nearly a year ago, before the House flipped to the GOP. Johnson told senators he wants to fund the government through Jan. 15 and also “talked about a 1 percent reduction” in any spending bill, said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.). That type of cut is something Democrats almost certainly won’t accept.

Johnson had also previously floated April 15 as another possible funding deadline, which would not have gone over well with Senate spending chiefs looking for a sense of urgency. Johnson’s embrace of a Jan. 15 deadline would give Congress two more months to try to reach a workable deal on spending for the rest of the fiscal year.

“I think he realizes, and we all do, that without a sooner deadline, we won’t start working sooner,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said.

Still, Johnson’s plans are far from the last word on any major issue. Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy could not get a stopgap spending bill without Democratic votes, and House Democrats will not embrace a blunt spending cut in a short-term funding bill. What’s more, Schumer and McConnell will have plenty of say in how this year’s spending fights will play out.

Republican senators asked questions of Johnson during their Wednesday visit with him, but one was mostly quiet: McConnell. The GOP leader “was just taking it all in” as Johnson spoke and held court with Republican senators, according to Cornyn.

McConnell did speak up about the importance of strong border security in any large spending deal after Johnson left the room, following roughly an hour with the Senate GOP.

Johnson met with Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries shortly afterward. Jeffries said they had a “very open, honest, positive and candid conversation.” He said that Johnson offered no concrete timeline for moving Ukraine aid, and Jeffries made clear he sees no room for negotiation on federal spending levels after the bipartisan debt deal earlier this year.

Despite his divergent stance on Biden’s request for emergency spending, Johnson was mostly well received by the GOP senators, many of whom applauded him at the beginning and end of his remarks.

He was introduced by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who met privately with the new speaker and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) prior to the meeting with the full Senate Republican conference. Sen. Johnson, Scott and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) also meet regularly with House conservatives. The Wisconsin conservative described Johnson as “obviously a different speaker” for the Senate to deal with than McCarthy.

Like McCarthy, though, Speaker Johnson faces the same push-pull tensions, caught between the need to entertain bipartisanship with the Senate and the impulse to hew to a hard line with the right. Johnson could still face an ouster vote from just a single GOP member if he makes a political misstep, hemming in his ability to operate.

Johnson’s first bill sends money to Israel and cuts IRS funding to pay for it, a decision that’s turned off Democrats but potentially won him enough GOP support to get the measure through the House. And GOP senators said that’s the dynamic everyone on the Hill is going to have to get used to.

“He’s clearly gathering support within his caucus on the House side in order to get things through. And if he gets something through that doesn’t mesh with what the Senate wants, it’s because he can’t get it through,” said Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) “We have to be very aware that he has his finger on the pulse of his caucus.”

Anthony Adragna contributed to this report.

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