McConnell nudges Johnson as gap grows between GOP leaders

McConnell nudges Johnson as gap grows between GOP leaders

During a private White House meeting on Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell nudged House Speaker Mike Johnson to take up the Senate’s $95 billion foreign aid bill — a move that would risk a right-flank rebellion against the speaker.

The Senate GOP leader’s public and private remarks on Tuesday advocating for his chamber’s bill was a subtle but notable shift from his tactics just two weeks ago, when the Kentuckian said he didn’t “have any advice” for the speaker on how to handle President Joe Biden’s long-stalled request for new Ukraine aid. Earlier this month, McConnell even suggested potential negotiations to reconcile different House and Senate aid bills.

But after more than an hour at the White House, Johnson was on an island when it came to Ukraine, compared to Biden and his fellow three top leaders.

“What I hope is that the House will take up the Senate bill and let the House work its way. If they change it and send it back here, we have further delays,” McConnell said on Tuesday afternoon. “We don’t want the Russians to win in Ukraine. So, we have a time problem here. And I think the best way to move quickly and get the bill to the president would be for the House to take up the Senate bill and pass it.”

He similarly advocated for the Senate’s legislation in the private meeting, according to two people familiar with the sitdown.

McConnell’s move underscored that the two men are dealing in dramatically disparate ways with similar pressures they face from conservatives who have no interest in passing Ukraine aid. While McConnell is sensitive to Johnson’s tough position, their young relationship is different from his partnership with former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who got broad deference from McConnell during last year’s debt ceiling negotiations.

Nonetheless, Tuesday’s meeting showcased Johnson’s isolation among congressional leaders. And while standing apart from the Senate is not an unpopular position in the raucous House GOP, it complicates Johnson’s stewardship of the chamber given the number of policy, political and tactical differences that congressional Republicans face in a crucial election year.

While McConnell, 82, views the fight for Ukraine aid as crucial to his 40-year Senate legacy, Johnson is roughly five months into a shock ascension as speaker and already facing heavy turbulence from his own members. Even Democrats are sympathetic to Johnson’s ever-present threat of an ouster if conservatives decide to force a vote of no confidence in his speakership.

McConnell faces his fair share of criticisms from his rank and file, but at least he knows his conservative foes likely have to wait until November’s leadership elections to air them formally.

“I don’t know how many political lives he has,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of the speaker. “But I think it’s really important that we get [Ukraine] done.”

Cornyn suggested Johnson could add a hardline border security bill to the Ukraine legislation, and he didn’t go as far as McConnell in advising Johnson to simply pass the Senate bill. That “is easy for senators to say,” Cornyn said, adding that Johnson is “trying to figure it out and I wish him well.”

Johnson faced a near-pile-on from top Democrats in the room on Tuesday, including Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries — all of whom pushed for Ukraine as well. Schumer publicly noted that “McConnell was the lead speaker in saying we needed to do Ukraine” during the meeting, describing it as among the most “intense” discussions in the room.

“It was the consensus in that room Zelenskyy and Ukraine will lose the war” if the U.S. does not provide aid, Schumer also warned.

While all four top leaders are now in apparent lockstep about avoiding a government shutdown, Johnson remained noncommittal on an emergency foreign aid bill, simply stating that lawmakers must prioritize the U.S. border before helping an ally overseas. He is pushing Biden to use executive actions to tighten security on the southern border before turning to Ukraine, and he is not alone in that view.

“That would be the way it would work if we did it, if the president would do those executive actions,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who aligns with Johnson on the border.

Johnson has previously pledged to get aid to Ukraine passed. But since then he has heard loud warnings from conservatives such as Reps. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — including threats of a vote to oust him as speaker — if he moves forward on such aid.

Ultimately, Johnson could watch a group of his own centrists solve the problem without him. Several Republicans are still open to joining hands with Democrats to bypass the constrained speaker and pass a separate Ukraine-border bill.

McConnell, meanwhile, has taken arrows for pushing forward on a border and foreign aid package that includes funding for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) even called for the Kentucky Republican to step down over the matter earlier this month, and conservative blanched at McConnell’s Ukraine advocacy on Tuesday.

“Who was standing up for the American taxpayer? Or for Americans harmed by Biden’s open-border policies?” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in reaction to the meeting.

There’s more daylight on the GOP’s funding strategy between Johnson and McConnell, who said Monday that Congress needs to go “toward clean appropriations and away from poison pills.” Johnson and his House allies are fighting for conservative policy restrictions in spending bills, which Democrats say they will not accept.

The first chance of a partial shutdown hits this week with Friday’s funding deadline. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who is close to Johnson, said he was unsure whether the speaker could muscle through a stopgap “continuing resolution” to avoid a funding lapse — though it appears to be the only way around a shutdown.

“I don’t see a lot of coordination,” Kennedy said of House and Senate Republicans. “We could just keep doing these short-term [continuing resolutions] between now and the election.”

Johnson has pledged to honor the so-called 72-hour rule and give his members time to review any deal that is secured. That leaves very little time to stop a group of government agencies from running out of money on Saturday.

He also pledged to keep trying to pass all 12 individual spending bills, which has set the expectation that Johnson will keep pushing the same type of stopgap spending patches he has promised to avoid.

Finger-pointing between Schumer and Johnson is already underway as to who would shoulder the blame in the event of a shutdown. Importantly, though, Republicans have failed to leverage shutdowns to get their demanded concessions over the last three decades.

That includes former Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995 trying to unsuccessfully use a partial shutdown to get cuts from then-President Bill Clinton. More recently, former President Donald Trump failed to extract money for his border wall in 2018 after a shutdown dragged on for a record 35 days.

“It’s just a road to nowhere at midnight,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) of a shutdown. “A misery march. Nobody wins.”

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