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House on the brink of approving Ukraine and Israel aid after months of struggle

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LA Post: House on the brink of approving Ukraine and Israel aid after months of struggle
April 20, 2024
STEPHEN GROVES and LISA MASCARO - AP

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House is preparing in a rare Saturday session to approve $95 billion in foreign aid for Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies, Democrats and Republicans joining together behind the legislation after a grueling months-long fight over renewed American support for repelling Russia's invasion into Ukraine.

Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson — putting his job on the line — relied on Democratic support this week to set up a series of votes on three aid bills, as well as a fourth that contains several other foreign policy proposals. If the votes are successful, the package will go to the Senate, where passage in the coming days is nearly assured. President Joe Biden has promised to sign it immediately.

Passage through the House would clear away the biggest hurdle to Biden's funding request, first made in October as Ukraine's military supplies began to run low. The GOP-controlled House, skeptical of U.S. support for Ukraine, struggled for months over what to do, first demanding that any assistance be tied to policy changes at the U.S. southern border — only to immediately reject a bipartisan Senate offer along those very lines.

Reaching an endgame has been an excruciating lift for Johnson that has tested both his resolve and his support among Republicans, with a small but growing number now openly urging his removal from the speaker's office. Yet congressional leaders cast the votes as a turning point in history — an urgent sacrifice as U.S. allies are beleaguered by wars and threats from continental Europe to the Middle East to Asia.

“The only thing that has kept terrorists and tyrants at bay is the perception of a strong America, that we would stand strong,” Johnson said this week. “And we will. I think that Congress is going to show that. This is a very important message that we are going to send the world."

Still, Congress has seen a stream of world leaders visit in recent months, from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, all but pleading with lawmakers to approve the aid. Globally, the delay left many questioning America's commitment to its allies.

At stake has also been one of Biden's top foreign policy priorities — halting Russian President Vladimir Putin's advance in Europe. After engaging in quiet talks with Johnson, the president quickly endorsed Johnson's plan this week, paving the way for Democrats to give their rare support to clear the procedural hurdles needed for a final vote.

“It's long past time that we support our democratic allies in Israel, Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific and provide humanitarian assistance to civilians who are in harm's way in theaters of conflict like Gaza, Haiti and the Sudan,” House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries said at a news conference Friday.

Voting on the package is likely to create unusual alliances in the House. While aid for Ukraine will likely win a majority in both parties, a significant number of progressive Democrats are expected to vote against the bill aiding Israel as they demand an end to the bombardment of Gaza that has killed thousands of civilians.

At the same time, Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has loomed large over the fight, weighing in from afar via social media statements and direct phone calls with lawmakers as he tilts the GOP to a more isolationist stance with his “America First” brand of politics. Ukraine's defense once enjoyed robust, bipartisan support in Congress, but as the war enters its third year, a bulk of Republicans oppose further aid.

At one point in the months-long slog to get Ukraine assistance through Congress, Trump's opposition essentially doomed the bipartisan Senate proposal on border security. This week, Trump also issued a social media post that questioned why European nations were not giving more money to Ukraine, though he spared Johnson from criticism and said Ukraine's survival was important.

Still, the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus has derided the legislation as the “America Last” foreign wars package and urged lawmakers to defy Republican leadership and oppose it because the bills do not include border security measures.

Johnson's hold on the speaker's gavel has also grown more tenuous in recent days as three Republicans, led by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, supported a “motion to vacate" that can lead to a vote on removing the speaker. A few more were expected to soon join, said Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who is urging Johnson to voluntarily step aside.

The speaker’s office has been working furiously to whip up support for the bill, as well as for Johnson. It arranged a series of press calls in the lead-up to the final votes on the package, first with Jewish leaders, then with Christian groups, to show support for the speaker and the legislation he is bringing to the floor.

Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, said it was about time the United States “did something to support Israel, fight Vladimir Putin and stand up to China.”

“Coming together like this is a refreshing reminder of the old days when foreign policy had bipartisan support,” he said.

The package includes several Republican priorities that Democrats endorse, or at least are willing to accept. Those include proposals that allow the U.S. to seize frozen Russian central bank assets to rebuild Ukraine; impose sanctions on Iran, Russia, China and criminal organizations that traffic fentanyl; and legislation to require the China-based owner of the popular video app TikTok to sell its stake within a year or face a ban in the United States.

Still, the all-out push to get the bills through Congress is a reflection not only of politics, but realities on the ground in Ukraine. Top lawmakers on national security committees, who are privy to classified briefings, have grown gravely concerned about the situation in recent weeks. Russia has increasingly used satellite-guided gliding bombs — which allow planes to drop them from a safe distance — to pummel Ukrainian forces beset by a shortage of troops and ammunition.

“I really do believe the intel and the briefings that we’ve gotten,” Johnson said, adding, “I think that Vladimir Putin would continue to march through Europe if he were allowed."

A former ambassador to Ukraine under President George W. Bush, John Herbst, said the months-long delay in approving more American assistance has undoubtedly hurt Ukrainian troops on the battlefield.

But it's not yet too late, Herbst added. “The fact that it's coming now means that disaster has been averted.”

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