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The rare gambit that could force the House to pass Ukraine aid

This House GOP majority is seemingly bent on making history — in all the wrong ways.

Its internal discord has made it the first to remove an incumbent speaker. It struggled mightily to elect both that speaker and his successor. It has played a major role in what was a historically unproductive 2023. It keeps losing on votes in ways that majorities almost never do.

And now it appears it could notch another rare distinction: having its hand forced by a discharge petition.

This week began a pair of discharge efforts to force a vote on Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. With House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) balking at a foreign aid package that passed with 70 votes in the Senate but that the hard-right opposes — and with Ukraine apparently in dire need — lawmakers are reaching for the little-used and rarely successful tool.

Effectively, discharge petitions force the House to vote on something, as long as a majority of the chamber signs on to them. But while that sounds relatively simple, it’s not, for reasons we’ll get to.

One discharge petition, from House Democrats, would force a vote on the Senate package. Another, from a small group of bipartisan lawmakers, would pair the Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan aid with border-security measures.

Whether either of them will ultimately reach a majority is to be determined. But it’s looking quite plausible that they could at least have an impact in a way we rarely see.

The former petition has 177 supporters, but only among the minority Democrats. And given that some progressive Democrats are balking at the aid to Israel, it would probably need to pick off a significant number of Republicans in a way that it hasn’t yet.

That would seem to be less of a concern with a historically weak (and potentially temporary) speaker. The urgency for aid to Ukraine would also seem to push foreign policy hawks toward this type of extraordinary action, if they believe it necessary to pass the aid.

That’s significant. The reason is the same reason discharge petitions are so rarely successful: because members of the majority party are reluctant to sign them — even on legislation with which they agree — since it’s viewed as undermining leadership.

House Rules Committee Chairman Tom Cole (R-Okla.) put it bluntly.

“Sooner or later, [foreign aid] is getting to the floor,” he said, according to Politico. He added: “So we can either come together on a package of our own and put that on the floor, or have to live with whatever the discharge petition produces.”

Cole’s comment gets at what might be the most likely impact of the discharge petitions. It’s not just that one of the two could ultimately garner a majority and force a vote; it’s also that the mere threat of them could spur the House into action.

But even if it were the latter, that would be rare.

The Brookings Institution’s Sarah Binder has for years compiled data on discharge petitions. As of May, she had counted 639 discharge petitions since 1935. Less than 4 percent were directly successful. But a similar percentage led the House to act because of the credible threat that the petitions posed.

Those are still substantial numbers; about 8 percent of discharge petitions had some form of success. But what you’ll also notice if you look at Binder’s most recent data is that these numbers have fallen off substantially in recent decades.

In the 21st century, the only major examples of discharge petitions succeeding were Republicans bucking their speaker to pass campaign finance reform in 2002 and a bipartisan group forcing a vote to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank in 2015.

The overriding question in all of this, of course, is what Johnson will do. While he has voted against Ukraine aid in the past, he has also spoken about how important the aid and Ukraine’s success is. And while he has ruled out bringing the Senate package to the House floor, he has spoken more in terms of allowing the House to work its own will.

His problem is that Ukraine is in a tough spot, and even members of his own party are getting impatient. It’s not at all clear that the novice speaker even knows what the path forward might be or what he can pull off. The fractiousness of his conference is giving him few good options. He indicated to Politico on Thursday that any vote would probably be taken up under rules requiring a two-thirds majority and that it would be a stand-alone bill. But he stopped short of promising a vote, and he even suggested that Ukraine and Israel aid might be separated.

In that way, having his hand forced by a discharge petition might actually be politically preferable — by allowing him to cite that fact when Ukraine-funding skeptics complain. Notably, some hard-right members, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), are suggesting that they wouldn’t hold Johnson responsible or seek to oust him (à la Kevin McCarthy) if he can’t beat back a discharge petition.

But even if Johnson seeks to use that as an excuse, that Congress needed to go to this historically rare tool to get this done would speak volumes about just how unwieldy the House GOP has become.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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