Is the US Congress finally poised to pass Ukraine aid?

The end of March will mark eight months since United States President Joe Biden first requested supplemental aid to resupply Ukraine’s armed forces and help the country prepare for coming Russian offensives. With Congress beginning yet another recess, there may finally be an end in sight to the partisan logjam, but the shape that Ukraine aid ultimately takes and the path to getting a bill to Biden’s desk for his signature remain unclear.

Since former representative Kevin McCarthy was forced to vacate his leadership role as Speaker of the House, Speaker Mike Johnson has feared inviting a similar ouster. Before leaving for a two-week recess on March 22, House Democrats signaled they will protect him from just such a motion to vacate if he announces a plan to take up the bipartisan National Security Supplemental package passed by the Senate last month.

Johnson has said he’d take on Ukraine aid after passing a federal budget, which he’s now accomplished. The next two weeks may see him coordinating with allies and negotiating with Democrats on a potential deal before Congress resumes on April 9, meaning the earliest that Ukraine aid could optimistically be passed is mid to late April.

There are four likely vehicles for passing the supplemental military, budgetary, and humanitarian aid requested by Biden: Johnson bringing forth the Senate-passed supplemental to a vote on the House floor, as is typically done with legislation; a potential new supplemental package crafted by Republicans at Johnson’s behest; a Democrat-led bipartisan discharge petition to bring the Senate-passed supplemental to a vote; or a Republican-led discharge petition to bring slimmed-down supplemental aid to a vote.

A critical factor in any of these options is that if the House passes legislation that differs from the supplemental aid, it will have to revert to the Senate for further deliberations and another series of votes. This would lead to additional delays, opportunities for political sabotage, and a sharper advantage for Russia on the battlefield in Ukraine.

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The best option for swiftly passing Ukraine aid is for Johnson to bring the bill that already passed the Senate to the floor for a vote, which could be done quickly upon Congress’s return. Democrats are signaling that Johnson announcing this move would guarantee their support against a motion to remove him from the speakership, which was already filed by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and could soon come to a procedural vote.

Johnson in recent weeks has also reportedly been working to craft his own new version of supplemental aid. After Republicans aligned with former president Donald Trump tanked a bipartisan supplemental aid deal that included substantial reforms to US immigration policy, the Senate passed an aid package that omitted border policy changes and focused on foreign aid to Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, and Palestine. Johnson has directed three prominent Republican committee chairs to put together a proposal that pairs foreign aid with border policy, as well as other potential legislation such as the REPO Act to transfer Russian state assets to Ukraine.

No text has been released and minimal details about this new prospective aid package have emerged, but Johnson may try to negotiate with Democrats to include some of these provisions in whatever he brings to the floor. While Johnson and many other congressional Republicans agree on the need to pass Ukraine aid, the electoral incentives in their party may pressure some to present any eventual deal as some kind of political win over Democrats, even if the details are largely the same as what Democrats are asking for. The REPO Act, in addition to being smart policy, would also allow Johnson to claim that he’s helping relieve the burden of foreign aid from the American taxpayer, though Russian state assets in the US are reportedly only around $5 billion.

Johnson has failed to bring Ukraine aid to the floor for months and Democrats are now hedging their bets. Rep. Jim McGovern opened a discharge petition earlier this month to forcibly bring the Senate-passed supplemental to a vote. Discharge petitions are rare parliamentary mechanisms in which members must physically walk to the rostrum on the House floor and add their signature to a petition which, should it reach a majority of 218, will sideline the Speaker and trigger a vote on the associated legislation.

The McGovern petition quickly garnered Democratic support and has reached 191 signatures, including a lone Republican signature from Rep. Ken Buck on the second-to-last day before his retirement from Congress. There is significant pressure on Republicans not to side with what appears to be a Democratic effort, but delays from Johnson and dysfunction within their own party make defections more likely. Progressive Democrats are also reluctant to sign due to the package’s Israel aid, though many have privately signaled their willingness to sign if the White House announces accountability measures for this military aid to prevent misuse by Israeli forces.

A second discharge petition is being floated by Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus. Fitzpatrick has crafted a slimmed-down version of supplemental aid that includes controversial border measures such as Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, seen as toxic by most Democrats.

Fitzpatrick’s version reduces total aid for Ukraine by eliminating all humanitarian funding, cuts crucial financial aid that allows the Ukrainian government to function, and doesn’t expand allowances for the Presidential Drawdown Authority, which would mean less immediate aid to Ukraine at a critical time. 

Under this package, new military aid may not be provided until next year, though the White House would be able to replenish stocks depleted in the past. Some Ukraine aid is certainly better than none, but this would appear far from a first choice for Ukraine. If Fitzpatrick were to amend his proposal to address these issues, he’d be far more likely to attract Democratic support.

The next two weeks will see private negotiations between Johnson and Democratic leadership as well as further pressure on representatives to sign onto discharge petitions. Further GOP signatures onto the McGovern petition in particular would increase the pressure on Johnson to avoid embarrassment by bringing aid to the floor himself, while also increasing the likelihood of aid passing regardless. Another important variable is that, as in the case of the Senate border deal, Trump could intervene at the eleventh hour to pressure Republicans not to pass Ukraine aid.

After nearly eight months of delays, there may finally be a path to passing Ukraine aid through Congress. With Russia planning a new offensive in the coming months, potentially to conquer the city of Kharkiv, it can’t come a moment too soon. Ukrainian forces have had to ration ammunition because of Republicans blocking supplemental aid, losing towns and lives in the process. If the US wants to stop burning the trust of its allies and show that it can still be a reliable security partner, the time and place to do so is now on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Doug Klain is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a policy analyst at Razom for Ukraine, a nonprofit humanitarian aid and advocacy organization.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: A general view of the US Capitol Building behind American flags on the National Mall, in Washington, D.C., on Friday, March 15, 2024. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa)