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Experts react April 18, 2024

Your primer on the US House security bills for Ukraine, Israel, the Indo-Pacific, and more

By Atlantic Council experts

Here’s the 4-1-1. Four bills are heading toward a vote in the US House, likely Saturday, intended to provide additional aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan—more than ninety billion dollars in all. One man, Speaker Mike Johnson, is orchestrating this four-part package, which would also back efforts to seize Russian assets to support Ukraine, among other measures. Finally, there’s one group to turn to make sense of the pending legislation: Atlantic Council experts. Below, they share their insights on what’s in the legislation and why it matters.

Click to jump to an expert analysis:

John E. Herbst: The long overdue aid package is good news for Ukraine and US interests

Shelby Magid: How Speaker Johnson got to yes

Kitsch Liao: New Indo-Pacific funding reflects Congress’s concern with the state of US deterrence against China

Charles Lichfield: The House is taking a page from the Senate on immobilized Russian assets

Thomas S. Warrick: Beware the pitfalls ahead for this national security package

The long overdue aid package is good news for Ukraine and US interests

Johnson made good Wednesday on his months-long promise to put a major aid package for Ukraine on the floor of the House of Representatives. The amount of aid to Ukraine is roughly the same as the package passed by the Senate in February—$60.5 billion in overall aid, with about $37 billion for weapons, and $10 billion for economic aid in the form of a loan. Making the economic aid a loan was a new feature in the package required by the Republicans. The military package also includes three-hundred-kilometer range ATACMS, a missile system that the Biden administration had long refused to provide for fear of Kremlin “escalation.” The original Senate package included aid to Ukraine, Israel, and the Western Pacific. Johnson has introduced separate bills for each region.

Johnson’s move is very good news for Ukraine, as well as US interests in Europe and globally.  While Republican populists in the House are pushing back hard against the aid for Ukraine, it is likely to pass with a substantial bipartisan majority—in the same way the Senate aid bill passed in February.  

The introduction of the aid package is long overdue. A major aid package should have been passed in September. The Kremlin greeted the delay—and the uncertainty regarding the aid’s future—as a victory because without US weapons, Ukraine would likely be conquered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia has enjoyed a large advantage in weaponry since it launched its 2022 invasion. Even before the delay, Russia had a five-to-one advantage in ordnance. And the delay in aid has in fact required Ukraine to ration the use of ordnance over the past four months—one major factor in Russia’s success in capturing Avdiivka last winter.  

The Biden administration has assured us that it is prepared to send ordnance to Ukraine upon passage of the bill. That will have an immediate, positive impact on the course of the war. Along with the ammunition and weapons likely to arrive soon under Czech President Petr Pavel’s initiative, Ukraine should soon be in a position to stop the incremental gains Moscow has eked out this year with massed kamikaze assaults. Ukraine should also be able to better defend its infrastructure against Moscow’s massive air campaign. But this last need requires the supply of more Patriot missiles and other air-defense systems.

John E. Herbst is the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former US ambassador to Ukraine.

How Speaker Johnson got to yes

It has been a dizzying six months watching House Republicans fight over how to both respond to national security priorities, especially regarding aid to Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression, and manage dynamics within their own conference. Johnson has faced months of increasing pressure from all fronts—the White House, NATO allies, influential former and current GOP voices, religious leaders, Ukrainians, and House Democrats who have sought to force a vote on the Senate-approved package via a discharge petition.  

First behind closed doors and now publicly, Johnson has grown firmer in his understanding that the United States needs to stand up against the threat from Russia, an adversary increasingly aligned with Iran, North Korea, and other US foes. By Wednesday, he was giving the most forceful public case he’s made yet. “We’re going to stand for freedom and make sure that Vladimir Putin doesn’t march through Europe,” Johnson said in one TV interview. But he has had to balance this belief and the knowledge that he needs to lead with a desire to keep his position as speaker amid another growing pressure—that of an ouster from far-right members whose opposition to supporting Ukraine has benefitted Putin’s aggression and found favor in the Kremlin.

These months of deliberation have put Russia in a stronger position in its war against Ukraine, directly increasing the threat to US and allied national security. But by moving ahead with these four bills this week, Johnson appears to have finally risen to the challenge—while trying to make it palatable for his party. The long-held view remains that once Ukraine aid gets to the floor it will pass, with enough Republicans joining Democrats to vote for it. For those who fear that Republicans may still pull the rug out from under Ukraine and only support the Israel bill, it’s worth remembering that the Senate stands strong in its bipartisan conviction that US national security requires a response to Russia—and that support for Ukraine must be included in the military aid package. As with the whole saga of this package, we need to see the gavel drop on a House floor vote to believe it is finally happening. But with a necessary dose of caution, it appears we’re nearly there.  

Shelby Magid is the deputy director of the Eurasia Center.

New Indo-Pacific funding reflects Congress’s concern with the state of US deterrence against China

First of all, it is a relatively positive development to disaggregate the three bills, as the Pacific portion of the bill has largely received unanimous bipartisan support. The bill’s aim is threefold: to address China’s rapid growth into a nuclear peer power, tackle the inadequacies in authorization for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), and to rectify some issues in Taiwan’s unique security assistance situation.

The bill’s two billion-dollar investment in the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine force reflected Congress’s concern over the average age of the current force, which is already exceeding its original thirty-year projected service life. This is in contrast to China’s rapidly increasing number of nuclear warheads and new Type 096 ballistic missile submarines, which are projected to enter construction in the near future. Additionally, the $293 million for the submarine industrial base also neatly addressed the Navy’s top unfunded priorities mere weeks after Admiral Lisa Franchetti submitted them to Congress. This funding, as well as the fact that Congress raised the PDI’s 2024 budget from the Biden administration’s $8.1 billion request by $5 billion, indicated that Congress is concerned about the speed with which the United States is implementing its deterrence against China in the near term.

For the Taiwan portion of the bill, it is worth noting this language: “for replacement, through new procurement or repair of existing unserviceable equipment, or defense articles from stocks of the Department of Defense.” This is a clear reference to the previous assistance Taiwan received through the Presidential Drawdown Authority (PDA). The successful PDA transfer has established a valuable precedent, worked out relevant bureaucratic processes, and established several new categories of valuable security assistance. However, the understandable priority of aiding Ukraine in its ongoing struggle against the Russian invasion has resulted in some of that aid coming from excess US defense articles. Questions about the ability to maintain and support these aging articles threaten Taiwan’s readiness for future operations. These issues can now be resolved through the new bill.

Additionally, Title Three of the bill further provides the Department of State, which heads the interagency effort in foreign military sales to Taiwan, with the necessary resources to combat chronic delays in the delivery of weapon systems to Taiwan.

 —Kitsch Liao is an assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub. Previously, he worked in the US Congress, in diplomatic postings, and as a cyber intelligence analyst for the private sector.

The House is taking a page from the Senate on immobilized Russian assets

We know the Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity for Ukrainians (REPO) Act from the Senate. Senators Jim Risch and Sheldon Whitehouse managed to secure bipartisan support for their draft in the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee in late January. The draft, which appeared this week as part of the “fourth pillar” of the House Republican national security supplemental package, is very similar. It still empowers the executive branch to seize the immobilized sovereign assets of the Russian Federation, but does not force it to.

This would only apply to the less than ten billion dollars believed to be in the United States, and not the majority of the $320 billion in immobilized assets in Europe. It acknowledges the need for robust dialogue with the rest of the sanctions-wielding coalition before taking this step together. Like the Senate draft, it would also provide the administration with another six months before having to declare how much is immobilized in the United States, and where. Given how much we know about where and how assets are immobilized in Europe, it is surprising that Washington is still able to keep the details of the relatively small amount that is here a secret.

Charles Lichfield is the deputy director and C. Boyden Gray senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center.

Beware the pitfalls ahead for this national security package

Congress should pass a supplemental appropriation for military aid to Ukraine, Israel, and the United States’ Pacific allies, as well as humanitarian aid for Gaza and Sudan, because this is in the security interest of the United States. There is a reason House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries called this a “Churchill or Chamberlain moment.” Yet for this to work out in the next few days, the bill must still go through a considerable number of steps. With stakes this high, it’s worth noting where the pitfalls are, so they can be avoided.

1. On Thursday or Friday, the House of Representatives needs to pass a rule governing debate on military and humanitarian aid packages and a related bill on a set of security measures that have bipartisan support. Johnson is committed to voting on each package separately, perhaps with a package of Republican-only measures on the border, then combining the first four—but not the border measures—into a single bill to send to the Senate. The rule will set out the procedures for how debate will occur and what amendments will be allowed on the floor of the House. Given opposition from some Republicans, Democrats will need to go against Washington tradition and vote for the rule.

2. Saturday’s floor debate has to produce no serious surprises. It’s possible that two disgruntled House members could bring a motion to vacate the position of speaker of the House, a privileged motion that could derail the debate on the aid bills or delay the vote.

3. Depending on the rule (see point 1), there could be showstopping amendments that will be voted on the floor of the House. This overall supplemental is viable only because it has elements that both Democrats and Republicans want, with no “poison pills” on abortion, climate change policy, or other divisive issues. There need to be no surprises on showstopping amendments. 

4. The bills have to pass the House. So long as points 1-3 are met, the aid packages should all pass, but voting can never be taken for granted. Final passage will require a significant number of both Democratic and Republican “yea” votes.

5. The Senate needs to move quickly. After House passage, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will likely ask for the unanimous consent of the Senate to agree on a few hours for debate and a vote. One senator could object, forcing the Senate to take several days to debate the bill, no matter how urgent the military aid is.

6. The Senate needs to avoid amending the House bill. That would require the House to approve the revised version. Here’s hoping the Senate passes what the House passes. Otherwise, go back to point 1.

7. The Senate needs to pass the bill. If there are no changes from where the bills stand now, the Senate vote should be strongly in favor. 

8. Once the same version is passed by both the House and the Senate, President Joe Biden will sign it. That part, at least, is sure to go as it should.

Thomas S. Warrick is a senior fellow and director of the Future of DHS Project at the Atlantic Council. He served in the Department of State from 1997-2007 and as deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy at the US Department of Homeland Security from 2008 to 2019.

Further reading

Related Experts: John E. Herbst, Shelby Magid, Kitsch Liao, Thomas S. Warrick, and Charles Lichfield

Image: House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) speaking at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA)