Ukraine aid shows MAGA wing hasn’t cowed Speaker Johnson

by Patricia Lopez

House Speaker Mike Johnson endured a titanic struggle to get Ukraine aid through the House, one that demonstrates the benefits of cooperation and the pitfalls of extremism.

His ultimate success on Saturday, however, came at a dear price, one paid by Ukrainians in blood and in the countless lives that might have been saved had Johnson taken up the bill when it was passed by the Senate in February. His refusal to marshal the coalition of Democratic and GOP votes in support of the package faded this week in the face of expert briefings that finally convinced him of the gravity of the situation and the importance of Ukraine’s fight to U.S. interests.

Instead of catering to MAGA extremists, Johnson declared himself a “Reagan Republican,” rejecting the isolationism that has come to dominate the party’s extremists. It was a refreshing and unexpected turn from Johnson.

“We have a very special responsibility,” Johnson told reporters at an earlier news conference. “It doesn’t mean we’re the world’s policeman. It does mean we have to stand for freedom.”

Such talk is seldom heard these days from the party of Donald Trump. Even rarer is Johnson’s affirmation of the value of gathered intelligence. “I really do believe the intel and the briefings that we got,” Johnson said. “I think Vladimir Putin would continue to march through Europe if he were allowed. I’d rather send bullets to Ukraine than American boys,” he said noting that his son will enter the U.S. Naval Academy this fall.

President Joe Biden earlier this week voiced support for Johnson’s efforts to build a bipartisan coalition, pledging to “sign this into law immediately to send a message to the world: We stand with our friends, and we won’t let Iran or Russia succeed.”

It’s too soon to know whether this latest battle will prove to be Johnson’s crucible. But he is learning one lesson over and over again. His biggest victories as House speaker have come through the most conventional means: forming coalitions and building on common interests to reach a reasonable middle ground, with the occasional sweetener for recalcitrant members.

Johnson devised a complex strategy for the $95 billion aid package that broke it into four pieces, allowing debate and amendments on each so all members could have their say. The $60 billion in aid for Ukraine included a loan component to mollify Republicans on the fence. The $26 billion for Israel included $10 billion in humanitarian aid for Gaza that Democrats wanted. A third piece was $8 billion in aid to Taiwan and other Indo-Pacific allies against the threat of Chinese aggression, while the fourth bill featured sanctions against Russia and Iran, and the potential ban or sale of TikTok. All four pieces passed with strong bipartisan support.

He also wisely refrained from an earlier intention to bundle the deal with a modified version of the Republican border bill — a sure dealbreaker in the Senate.

These are all nuanced, important measures that helped the deal go through and perhaps signs that his leadership is maturing. Efforts like these are not a surrender, regardless of what the extremists may say. They are the only way to govern in a closely divided body.

Democrats proved critical to Johnson’s efforts, even in getting the package to the floor. In a rare occurrence, Democrats broke with tradition and provided Republicans with the votes to ensure its passage out of the Rules Committee. Democrats also cast most of the votes needed to pass the Ukraine aid package, providing 219 votes to the Republicans’ 101. Though a bit lopsided, that nevertheless is a strong and unassailable bipartisan effort that should be commended.

Democrats also displayed impressive discipline in refusing to address threats by Johnson’s right flank to oust him as speaker. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries commended Johnson and what he called “traditional conservatives” for passing the total aid package, but wisely refrained from making it appear as though there was a quid pro quo to rescue Johnson’s speakership.

Democrats and Republicans also teamed up to deliver a satisfying comeuppance to Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. The self-styled queen of MAGA conservatives offered an amendment to zero out Ukrainian aid and was met with a resounding defeat, 349 to 71. A deflated and stone-faced Greene later told reporters that she would not move ahead on her motion to oust Johnson until the House returned from a weeklong recess.

However Johnson came to his epiphany on the need for the U.S. to stand by its allies and against the world’s bullies, it reaffirmed this country’s willingness to provide world leadership. It also provided a moment of unity that the House may need to draw on again as it faces down aggressors and tyrants.

Patricia Lopez is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. She is a former member of the editorial board at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.