Russia-Ukraine: Congressional approval of Ukraine aid package reaffirms world leadership role

William Roberts, IBA US CorrespondentMonday 29 April 2024

In April, the US House of Representatives passed an historic package of military aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan – a bipartisan move in a highly polarised era. To get the package through, House Speaker Mike Johnson – who was elected in October 2023 – defied colleagues in the Republican Party and leaned on support from President Joe Biden’s Democrats.

The breakthrough came after months of delay in which former President Donald Trump and his ‘Make America Great Again’ cadres in Congress opposed aid to Ukraine, raising fears in Europe that the US would abandon its allies.

‘We’re seeing a real splinter in the Republican Party’, says Matt Kaiser, Senior Vice-Chair of the IBA Criminal Law Committee and a partner at KaiserDillon in Washington, DC. ‘Where many people thought that Mike Johnson would come in and be a speaker for the [hardline] Freedom Caucus [group of legislators], we’re seeing that’s just not the case. He’s willing to work with Democrats, but he’s got his own sense of what’s right and wrong’,’ says Kaiser. ‘Clearly, he thought that aid for Ukraine was the right thing to do’.

Legislators worked together to pass a $95bn emergency spending package on 20 April that included $61bn for Ukraine. The key roll call count that paved the way was 316 to 94, a measure of broad, bipartisan support. But it wasn’t always evident that the House would get there, or even that the Speaker, who wields great power under the chamber’s rules, would allow the legislation to come forward.

[Speaker Johnson] has got his own sense of what’s right and wrong. Clearly, he thought that aid for Ukraine was the right thing to do

Matt Kaiser
Senior Vice-Chair, IBA Criminal Law Committee

In February, the US Senate had approved an earlier version of the security bill. Johnson refused to bring it to the House for a vote. Instead, he complained that the Senate had failed to address the migration crisis at the US’ southern border. ‘The mandate of national security supplemental legislation was to secure America's own border before sending additional foreign aid around the world’, Johnson said in a statement.

Indeed, Johnson’s initial blockade of aid to Ukraine appeared to be a position well within the growing Republican tilt toward isolationism under Trump. At the time, a parade of Trump’s congressional allies spoke out against aiding Ukraine and called for Europe to take more of the burden.

The former president has long been seen as anti-Ukraine and pro-Russian. In 2019, during his presidency, Trump was impeached in the House for withholding US weapons from Ukraine. More recently, Trump had said in stump speeches that, if re-elected, he would end the war by requiring Kyiv to negotiate with Moscow, a gambit almost guaranteed to lock-in Russia’s battlefield gains. Trump ‘has certainly accelerated and reinforced’ isolationist sentiments within his party, says Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at The Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.

Johnson soon became the focal point of a pressure campaign by Biden and his cabinet officials, Republican leaders in the House and Senate, and numerous national security officials. White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Central Intelligence Agency Director Bill Burns laid out the dire stakes for Johnson in detail during a closed-door White House meeting in February.

‘The longer Johnson has been in leadership, the more of a sense he has gotten that, his role as Speaker of the House is different than certainly his role as a rank-and-file member from Louisiana and even different from his role as a peripheral member of Republican leadership’, Reynolds says.

The Biden administration campaign to turn Johnson ‘involved showing him intelligence about what was happening in Ukraine that he would not have been privy to before he was Speaker, and really trying to convince him of the severity of the situation, the consequences of not bringing this to the floor’, she adds. In eventually making his decision, Johnson told Representative Michael McCaul, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, that he wants ‘to be on the right side of history’.

It’s too early to gauge from this legislative episode whether Trump’s isolationism is plateauing or even retreating in the US. One of the more telling moments in the House debate over the aid package came when Representative Marjorie Taylor Green offered an amendment that would have slashed the amount in dollars of Ukraine aid to zero. Only 71 Republicans voted for it.

All along, Trump acolyte Greene had been threatening to call for a no-confidence vote that could unseat Johnson from the speakership if he were to push the Ukraine bill forward. Hardliners had used the same procedure in 2023 to remove former Speaker Kevin McCarthy. This time, however, it appears Democrats are willing to come to Johnson’s assistance, which could take away Greene’s leverage.

The urgency in Congress to provide military aid to Israel in the face of threats from Iran has certainly helped the Ukraine measure advance. Still, the large bipartisan votes in the House were a rebuke of Trump’s backing away from America’s international leadership role. ‘For a short period of time, it assures our allies we are serious about backing them and we are going to try to keep international peace’, says James Thurber, distinguished professor of government and Founder of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, DC.

Image credit: Studio Romantic/AdobeStock.com

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