Mitch McConnell and Mike Johnson come from different generations, different political orbits.
McConnell (R-Ky.) is the 81-year-old Senate minority leader whose childhood was defined by battling polio with his mother as his father served in the Army in World War II. His first years as senator came at the peak of the Cold War. Johnson (R-La.) took office in January 2017, just before Donald Trump took the oath of office. Now 51, the new House speaker finished his undergraduate degree after the fall of the Soviet Union, leading to a legal career focused on cultural issues.
So McConnell and Johnson’s split-screen moment was destined to happen.
After Wednesday’s meeting at the White House with President Biden and 20 congressional leaders, McConnell declared that he was done trying to placate Ukraine skeptics in Johnson’s conference. There’s roughly $110 billion on the table that would bolster Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s defense against Russia, along with helping Israel and Taiwan, and provide billions of dollars to shore up the U.S. border along Mexico.
“We’ve been talking about this for a very long time. It’s time to try to act,” McConnell told reporters upon returning to the Capitol. He said the only way to settle the final hurdles was to move beyond the secretive negotiations that have been led by a trio of rank-and-file senators searching for a compromise to U.S. border security issues.
“It’s not going to get better, in my opinion, until you actually say: We’re going to it next week,” McConnell told reporters back in the Capitol.
McConnell notably skipped a briefing Johnson provided to reporters outside the White House, where he continued to voice doubts about the mission in Ukraine.
Johnson gave what has become the standard two-step move by Republicans who have not fully sketched out their own views on Zelensky’s battle against Russia. He spoke of “the necessity about Ukraine funding” and wanting Biden “to show strength on the world stage,” almost sounding like McConnell and other security hawks.
But then he echoed many of the points that America-first conservatives embrace, questioning whether the “precious treasure of the American people” should continue to flow to Ukraine’s military. The speaker blamed Biden for a “status quo” deadlock on the eastern front since a Ukrainian counteroffensive launched last year.
McConnell also does not like the status quo, but he considers the best solution to be a fresh flow of U.S. funding to the front line.
Speaking to reporters before the Biden meeting, he jumped ahead of Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the rank-and-file negotiators by declaring that the $110 billion security package, known as a “supplemental” spending request, would hit the Senate floor next week because the world is on fire and needs to see Congress acting.
“We have a number of important international responsibilities and I think it’s time to go ahead with the supplemental, and I’m anticipating that’ll be before us next week,” he told reporters.
At his own news conference ahead of the White House huddle, Johnson told reporters that his message to Biden about Ukraine would be the same as it’s been for months. “What is the endgame and the strategy in Ukraine? How will we have accountability for the funds? We need to know that Ukraine would not be another Afghanistan,” Johnson said.
Asked about Johnson’s Afghanistan remark, McConnell quickly threw the speaker under the political bus.
“Well, I think Afghanistan was a big success,” McConnell said, noting his only dispute was with Biden’s poorly executed withdrawal. “We had not lost any personnel there in five or more years, women were largely normalized, there were girls in school and we weren’t getting killed, and the terrorists were not able to operate there.”
McConnell’s response to skeptics like Johnson has always been basic.
Strategy? Fight the Russians by aiding Ukraine’s military without shedding any U.S. soldier’s blood. Endgame? Defeat the Russians and deter other authoritarian regimes like China and Iran from their regional aspirations of conquest. Accountability? Win, then replenish American stockpiles of weapons.
Some of McConnell’s top lieutenants, including Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) — potential successors to the longest-serving GOP leader ever — have echoed his assertions that the still-secretive border deal includes the most significant concessions Democrats have offered in decades of largely fruitless talks on immigration issues.
That sets up the likelihood that the Senate could approve the legislation — whenever it is actually unveiled — on a bipartisan vote that would send the issue to the House, dropping a political hand grenade into Johnson’s GOP caucus that has struggled to handle even the most simple of tasks the past year.
Johnson and other Republicans have clamored for Biden and Democrats to take the migrant crisis at the border more seriously, holding the security package hostage until they get a much tougher response to the border situation along the Southwest.
It’s an open secret, however, that many conservatives have latched onto this issue as a way to simply avoid voting in support of the more than $60 billion that Biden has requested to shore up Ukraine’s defenses. No major immigration-and-border legislation has passed in four decades, so it’s always seemed likely to fail and, therefore, tank the Ukraine aide with it.
A coalition of outside conservative groups have gone after the emerging border deal as too soft, hoping for a bank shot that sinks the Senate deal and stifles aid to Ukraine.
Most of these anti-Ukraine Republicans are relatively new to Congress and reflexively fall in line with ex-president Donald Trump’s opposition to backing Ukraine. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) is openly threatening to support a motion to oust Johnson as speaker, similar to the move that booted Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in October, if he allows such massive Ukraine funding to come to a vote.
But a large bloc of traditional conservatives remain in the House, particularly those overseeing the national security committees. When Johnson spoke to White House reporters, he was flanked by a group that could be called the Three Mikes: Reps. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chair of the Armed Services Committee; and Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), chair of the House Intelligence Committee.
Those three have traveled throughout Europe the past two years preaching the traditional GOP gospel of peace through strength. They have been critical of Biden and want a more aggressive posture. In December they sent a 28-page memo to every House Republican — “Proposed Plan for Victory in Ukraine” — about defending Ukraine in ways that would draw a round of applause from McConnell.
None of the Mikes spoke after Johnson’s remarks at the White House.
In that regard, the White House meeting might have served as an informal pressure campaign on Johnson. Of the nearly 20 lawmakers there, all but Johnson have been vocal supporters of Zelensky.
Many GOP lawmakers secretly support the Mikes-and-McConnell world view of fighting Russian President Vladimir Putin, but they lack the political courage to actually press the green button on the House floor and vote yes in support of funding to battle Russia. They instead privately act as if they just wish Biden would wave a magic wand and help Zelensky.
No such wand exists.
And now it’s up to Congress to decide the future of Europe, and Johnson is likely going to have to make a decision about whether he will put this legislative package on the House floor.
His politically safe play will be to try to amend the Senate bill to impose stronger border provisions and less funding for Ukraine, possibly with greater strings on the aid. But that’s almost certain to fail — a handful or more Republicans, like Greene, will oppose any bill funding the war and every Democrat is likely to oppose it.
For now Johnson will continue to express doubts about the border portion of the security package. “The House is ready to act, but the legislation has to solve the problem, and that’s the critical point,” he said Wednesday outside the White House.
The critical point, to McConnell, is getting some help on the border and immediately funding Zelensky’s defense.
“It’s time to act,” he told reporters.