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Mike Johnson is edging closer to doing the right thing on Ukraine

The speaker is likely to bring aid for Ukraine to the floor — and potentially get the goodwill from Democrats to save his job.

For more than a month, House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has put off a vote on funding for Ukraine’s war against Russia. It now appears, though, that the GOP stonewalling may finally come to an end once the House reconvenes from its Easter recess. “We’re going to do our job” and support Ukraine, he told an attendee at a closed-door luncheon fundraiser last month, according to The New York Times.

The Times’ report, which draws on notes the attendee took and interviews with others who’ve spoken to Johnson, emphasizes that the speaker is well aware of the “delicate political tightrope” he’s been forced to walk on the issue. It also tracks with previous reporting about Johnson’s personal support for aiding Kyiv, even as his right flank has threatened his job over any moves to help Ukraine. How Johnson decides to cross that tightrope will determine whether there’ll be a net to catch him if he falls.

How Johnson decides to cross that tightrope will determine whether there’ll be a net to catch him if he falls.

Ukraine badly needs additional aid from the U.S. — and quickly. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned a congressional delegation visiting the country last month that without assistance the military could run out of weapons needed to defend itself against Russia’s invasion. Zelenskyy spoke with Johnson on Thursday, giving the speaker an update "on the battlefield situation," the Ukrainian president posted on X. The Biden administration moved to transfer $300 million worth of weapons to Kyiv in an emergency measure this month, but that’s far short of the $60 billion that the Senate passed in a larger national security package in February.

The Senate’s leaders, Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have leaned on Johnson to bring just that bill to the floor. In theory that makes sense: The package, which also included funding for Israel and Taiwan, passed the Senate with 70 votes — a remarkably bipartisan effort by modern standards. But there are two major pitfalls.

The bigger of the two is that many House conservatives don’t want to help Ukraine at all. Republicans have been far less likely to support aiding Kyiv’s war effort since the conflict began. The decline can be traced to both a surge of isolationism among archconservatives and the anti-Ukraine sentiments of former President Donald Trump. As with several other recent bills, including the recent government funding deals, Johnson would most likely decide to bypass the usual process of sending the bill first to the Rules Committee, where House Freedom Caucus members hold several seats.

But circumventing the Rules Committee would require two-thirds of the House to vote in favor of suspending the rules and passing the bill. When Johnson has done that recently, it’s been with the knowledge that Democrats would provide the votes to make up for any GOP defections. House conservatives were upset about this maneuver when it came to the spending deals, but doing it on a stand-alone funding bill for Ukraine would make them apoplectic. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., has already filed a motion to vacate the chair, the process used to topple previous Speaker Kevin McCarthy, over those spending bills, and she can trigger it on a whim moving forward. Doing so would force a vote on whether to remove Johnson as speaker, kicking off a race to replace the man Republicans installed after spending three weeks last year tearing themselves apart.

But Democrats are very, very interested in getting the Ukraine package over the line — potentially enough to save Johnson from being toppled. “If the choice is between Ukraine aid and providing a vote to stop a motion to vacate or no Ukraine aid, I think there’s a lot of Democrats who would be willing to assist in getting it done,” Rep. Jim Hines, D-Conn., the vice chair of the Intelligence Committee, told The Hill on Wednesday. The final say, though, would come down to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who has hinted that might be the case without making any promises.

Democrats are very, very interested in getting the Ukraine package over the line — potentially enough to save Johnson from being toppled.

The other trouble is that the math to reach two-thirds of the vote becomes more difficult if the House bill reflects the Senate package by including aid for Israel, as well. Progressive Democrats are already upset that the most recent spending deal both cut funding to the main U.N. body providing aid to Palestinian civilians and provided the usual annual $3.3 billion in aid to Israel’s military. They’re very skeptical about providing $14 billion more in unconditional aid to Israel in its war against Hamas when an estimated 32,000 Palestinians have already been killed since October, according to the Gaza Healthy Ministry.

Packaging the two provisions together could find the bill lacking enough support to make it to President Joe Biden’s desk. But dividing them wouldn’t guarantee that either Ukraine or Israel aid passes again in the Senate as a stand-alone bill. Johnson has indicated that he would prefer to put his own bill on the floor, though he hasn’t given much of a hint about what it would entail or how it would differ from the bipartisan bill waiting on his desk.

This all fits with Johnson’s approach to the speakership so far. In his five months on the job, he’s shown that he’s willing to call the far right’s bluff as far as the threat to oust him is concerned. But he’s also stumbled when trying to craft his own legislative plans, as when he tried to tie Israel funding to slashing the IRS’ budget. It’s good that he’s cautiously creeping toward doing the right thing on Ukraine. He needs to be sure, though, that he does it in a way that encourages Democrats to have his back.