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Senate faces tough choice on Speaker Johnson’s Ukraine vision

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The Senate faces a tough choice on Ukraine aid as Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) says the House will move a Ukraine package after the April recess, but one that could be strikingly different from the $95 billion package the upper chamber passed in February.

The Speaker has already told Republican senators that a substantial portion of the assistance in the House bill would be provided in the form of a loan, an idea championed by former President Trump but initially dismissed by Senate leaders in both parties.

Johnson has signaled the House will take action on a Ukraine assistance bill in the next few weeks but hasn’t shared many details about what the package will look like.

He has floated the idea of attaching language to reverse President Biden’s moratorium on new permits for liquified natural gas export facilities or provisions to pay for some aid to Ukraine by seizing Russian assets.

Now senators must decide whether to wave off Johnson’s latest gambit or swallow a Ukraine package that falls short of what they envisioned.

Given the dire situation on the eastern Ukrainian front, where Ukrainian troops are running out of weapons and ammunitions, even senators who were initially skeptical about setting up a complicated loan program are warming up to the idea of taking whatever the House sends across the Capitol.

Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.) acknowledged Monday that Congress is running out of time to help Ukraine and that the Senate may be forced to accept whatever passes the House.

“I think in whatever form it comes — whatever form it takes to get the aid to Ukraine, that’s the form that we got to go [with],” she told reporters. “I am of course a believer in the bill that was passed here in the Senate, would prefer that the House take that up.

“I don’t want to have to go through it all here in the Senate again, but getting the aid to Ukraine has to be the priority, and we have to do it as quickly as possible,” she said.

Butler expressed wariness about adding new policy reforms to aid for Ukraine, such as reversing Biden’s moratorium on liquified natural gas permits, which could trigger a new time-consuming fight.

“I think opening up new cans at this point is probably one of the things that’s going to take the most time and, to me, opening up avenues like that is another delay,” she said.

Republicans are feeling a similar sense of resignation about accepting a substantially revised foreign aid package.

“That’s fine. It’s a distinction without much difference, because it’s unlikely Ukraine would ever have [to] pay it back. It would be forgiven. But getting help to Ukraine as soon as we can is something we should be doing,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said. “If it has to be done as loan to get it through the House, so be it.”

Romney said in February that packaging Ukraine aid as a loan would be tantamount to a political “fig leaf.”

“They wouldn’t be able to repay it. Their economy has been devastated. It’s a fig leaf, but if he wants a fig leaf and it gets through the House, I’d rather have that than nothing,” Romney said of Trump’s idea to send aid in the form of a loan.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has repeatedly pressed Johnson to bring the Senate bill to the House floor but with little result.

He expressed impatience over Johnson’s plans to reconfigure the Senate’s Ukraine assistance package to build more support for it among House Republicans.

“What I’ve said repeatedly is we’re running out of time,” McConnell told reporters before the Easter recess with a tone of exasperation.

“The best way to get Ukraine the help they need is for the House to pass the Senate bill. The problem with changing it … it can take you three days to do the simplest thing here in the Senate. We don’t have the time, so I’m continuing to advocate to the Speaker he put the bill on the floor and let people vote,” he said.

McConnell told Louisville radio host Terry Meiners in an interview Monday that his top goal during his remaining time in the Senate will be to fight the “isolationists” in his own party, and he declared the survival of an independent Ukraine to be vital to U.S. national security.

“I’m not leaving the Senate, and I’m particularly involved in actually fighting against the isolationist movement in my own party and some in the other, as well. And the symbol of that lately is, ‘Are we going to help Ukraine or not?’ And I think it’s extremely important that we do that,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also poured water last month on the prospect of the House substantially reworking the Senate foreign assistance package.

Schumer said he is confident that if Johnson puts the Senate-passed bill on the floor, it would get more than 300 votes.

“Ukraine needs the aid quickly. Doing a new bill, who knows what will happen given the frailty of these issues?” he warned.

Still, policy experts and Senate aides now say the Senate will be under heavy pressure to accept whatever the House passes, such as the bill that would send much of the aid to Ukraine in the form of a loan.

“If that’s the price of getting a supplemental for Ukraine through, then I think most people think it’s a price worth paying,” said Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow specializing in foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

“The problem here is that the bill that was passed in the Senate is just DOA,” she said.

Pletka said “one path” for Johnson is to move “a bill that looks something like what the Senate passed.”

“In other words, it’s money for Ukraine, it’s money for Israel, it’s money for Taiwan and maybe a couple border provisions,” she said.

But she warned adding strong border security is a “non-starter for the Democrats, and the Speaker knowns that.”

This option also carries risk for Johnson. Hard-liners in the House GOP object to any aid to the war-torn nation, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) last month filed a resolution to oust Johnson from the Speakership. She hasn’t moved to force a vote on it, but it was widely seen as a warning to Johnson on Ukraine.

Johnson needs Democratic votes to pass any funds for Ukraine, which means adding any border security components that Republicans demand would be a difficult proposition.

The other path would be to the put together an entirely new Ukraine assistance package in the House that delivers the aid through a loan program.

But Senate aides warn this would create all sorts of complications, because most of the military aid being sent to Ukraine now is in the form of weapons transfers.

“The weapons stuff couldn’t be a loan, because we’re paying for that to [the] defense [industry]. We’re buying the weapons directly and then sending the weapons” to Ukraine, said one aide, who pointed out that the military spending passed by the Senate would replenish U.S. Defense stockpiles and replace older inventory being sent overseas.

Conservative Rep. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) said he advised Johnson to include spending cuts in a Ukraine assistance package to mitigate the impact on the federal deficit, but that idea would also run into opposition from Senate Democrats.

“If there were no offsets, we’d be really disappointed. I think we need to not deficit-spend to fund Ukraine. I also think we need to have our own border prioritized. And I think Speaker Johnson shares that viewpoint,” Gaetz told CNN.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has warned that including “remain in Mexico” language in any Ukraine assistance package would be problematic.

The Ukraine aid package that Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) is trying to force though the House by collecting 218 signatures on a discharge petition includes the Trump-era “remain in Mexico” language in an effort to round up more GOP support. That provision would require migrants to wait outside the country as their asylum claims process in court. That petition, however, only has 18 signatures.

Al Weaver contributed.