Johnson signals shift on Ukraine to GOP senators

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) told Republican senators Wednesday to expect the House to send them legislation to help Ukraine, but cautioned that what comes out of the House will look substantially different than the $95 billion foreign aid package the Senate passed last month.

Johnson tried to reassure frustrated GOP senators who asked him about funding for Ukraine during a question-and-answer session at the annual Senate Republican retreat, which was held at the Library of Congress.

Johnson told senators that the House will send a Ukraine aid package to the Senate but floated the idea of making it a loan or lend-lease program, so that U.S. taxpayers would not be shelling out tens of billions of dollars without any expectation of getting a return, according to senators who participated in the discussion.

The Speaker also talked about including something similar to the REPO for Ukrainians Act, sponsored by Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), which would authorize the confiscation of Russian sovereign assets and deposit the proceeds of liquidated property into a Ukraine Support Fund, senators said.

Notably, Johnson did not say whether such a Ukraine aid package would include tough border security reforms, such as “Remain in Mexico” language, which would face opposition from Senate Democrats.

Johnson gave Republican senators a pathway for helping Ukraine a day after he came under pressure from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring the Senate-passed package funding Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan to the House floor.

“I did get the sense that after the appropriations bills were taken care of that they would turn to that and there have been a number of suggestions. One has to do with the forfeiture, basically, of $300 billion in Russian assets, which I think is a great idea,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of 22 Republican senators who voted for the Senate emergency foreign aid package last month.

Cornyn, who is running to succeed McConnell as GOP leader after this Congress, said seizing Russian assets to help Ukraine is “a great idea.”

“It would be justice to make the Russians to pay for Ukraine, pay the United States and allies for arming Ukraine,” he said.

Cornyn, an advisor to the Senate GOP leadership team, also praised the idea of setting up a lend-lease program to help Ukraine in addition to or perhaps instead of the $60 billion the Senate included in its emergency package.

“That’s what FDR did in World War II,” he said of a lend-lease program, which President Franklin Roosevelt signed in 1941 to arm Britain and other allies against Nazi Germany.

After hearing from Johnson, Cornyn said he’s “pretty optimistic” about the House sending a Ukraine aid package to the Senate.

“I’ve heard the Speaker now say ‘We’re not going to leave Ukraine emptyhanded’ or words to that effect,” he said.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who also attended the meeting, said the Speaker clearly stated his intention to help Ukraine.

“He was pretty clear about it,” Cramer said of Johnson’s indication that he would like to pass a lend-lease program and legislation to seize Russian assets to pay for a Ukraine support fund.

“I thought it was very hopeful,” he said, noting that he and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have worked with the House on a bill to send back to the Senate “that would probably include President Trump’s idea of some sort of lend-lease program.

“To me it’s the exact way to go about finding a solution that maybe isn’t unanimous but at least everybody can get on board with,” he said.

Johnson told reporters during the House Republican retreat at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia late Wednesday that he “will work the will of the House” on a package to help Ukraine and said he doesn’t want to let Russian President Vladimir Putin take over the country.

“No one wants Vladimir Putin to prevail. I’m of the opinion that he wouldn’t stop at Ukraine … and go all through the way through Europe,” he said. “There is a right and wrong there, a good versus evil in my view and Ukraine is the victim here.”

But he said that House Republicans “are processing through all the various options right now” and cautioned that whatever the House passes “may not look exactly like the Senate supplemental.”  

Graham said a lend-lease program would help Ukraine stop Russian gains on the battlefield.

“I think it’s an elegant solution, particularly with the REPO Act, where you can take oligarch assets,” he said. “I think that is a sweet spot, because if you’re for helping Ukraine, are you really going to say no to a loan?”

Graham emphasized any loan to Ukraine would be “waivable” and would not charge interest.

“I’m optimistic. I’ve never been more optimistic,” he said, citing Johnson’s comments.

Former President Trump began pushing the idea of sending aid to Ukraine in the form of a loan last month when he attempted to persuade GOP senators to vote against the Senate’s Ukraine funding bill.

“Loan them the money. If they can make it, they pay us back. If they can’t make it, they don’t have to pay us back,” Trump said at a rally in North Charleston.

Some Republican senators are skeptical of the loan idea, however, warning that it would put more financial strain on Ukraine at a time when their forces are losing momentum in the war, and that it could take weeks longer to craft the policy details of a lend-lease program.

“I’ll consider any option that’s put out there. I think a loan would impose a further burden on Ukraine right now at a time when they don’t need it but if that’s what it takes to get aid through, I’d be willing to consider,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who took a leading role in crafting the Senate package.

“I think that the bill that we passed is a better approach,” she said.

“I understand that the House wants to leave its own mark on the bill. That’s totally appropriate but I just wish they’d move on the supplemental. I’m really worried about the Ukrainians running out of ammunition and I think that’s why they’ve had the battlefield setbacks recently,” she said.

Ukrainian troops withdrew from the city of Avdiivka last month, handing Russia a victory.

McConnell on Tuesday pressed Johnson to let House members at least consider the House-passed bill.

“I want to encourage the Speaker again to allow a vote. Let the House speak on the supplemental that we sent over to them several weeks ago,” he told reporters.

Johnson told reporters Wednesday that “I understand the timetable and I understand the urgency of the funding” but pointed out that the Senate took four months to pass their Ukraine funding package.

But he emphasized that he wants to pass the regular appropriations bills before turning to the emergency foreign aid package for Ukraine, given the delicate political calculations of passing bills through the House with a narrow Republican majority.

“In the sequence of events, it was important for us to not put the supplemental in front of the appropriations bills because it would affect probably the vote tally ultimately on approps and we got to get our government funded,” he said.

Cramer said Johnson told senators Wednesday that he was confident that Senate and House negotiators will reach a deal soon on the second tranche of appropriations bills that need to pass by March 22 to avoid a partial government shutdown.

“He was quite confident about getting the appropriations stuff,” he said. “It sounded like at least five of the six [appropriations] bills are very, very close — even with hours – of being ready.”

Johnson, however, confirmed to senators that major disagreements remain over the Homeland Security appropriations bill, which has become ensnarled by the partisan battle over Biden’s immigration and border security policies.

Some appropriators are floating the possibility of separating that bill from the other five fills funding the Departments of Defense, Labor, Health and Human Services, State and other priorities.

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