Ukraine aid: Johnson tells senators he’s still looking for path ahead

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House Speaker Mike Johnson participates in a discussion at the Greenbrier Hotel on March 13 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

Speaker Mike Johnson told Republican senators during their closed-door retreat Wednesday that he was committed to finding a path ahead for Ukraine aid in the House of Representatives, a sign GOP senators took to mean that aid to the embattled country isn’t yet dead in Congress.

Sen. Markwayne Mullin, a Republican from Oklahoma, told CNN that Johnson made clear “he understood the importance and the urgency of it and was looking for a path forward.”

But Johnson’s message to senators also indicated the package he is looking at is unlikely to look like the $95 billion package the Senate passed. Republicans have been looking at using some kind of loan program, which wouldn’t outright give equipment to Ukraine, but would be part of a kind of lend-lease program.

CNN reported earlier this month that Johnson has been working closely with House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, to find a way to craft a Ukraine aid package that could include elements like McCaul’s REPO Act, which would seize Russian assets and transfer them to Ukraine – and perhaps a way to include some of the aid in a loan program, an idea originally floated by former President Donald Trump.

The goal of McCaul and Johnson’s efforts was always to get the bill to the floor by late March or early April. McCaul said Johnson will put such a House foreign aid bill on the floor after the appropriations process is done. The federal government faces another deadline to avert a partial government shutdown March 22.

“It is my belief that he will,” McCaul told CNN on Thursday when asked whether the speaker would put a bill on the floor.

McCaul dismissed the concept of sending Ukraine aid through a discharge petition, saying he is “worried” about that approach, highlighting instead the REPO Act and formatting aid as a loan.

“I’ve had discussions with (Republican Sen.) Lindsey Graham about the loan program for direct government assistance, which I think would be a very popular idea,” he said.

Johnson echoed his comments to senators Wednesday at the GOP retreat in West Virginia, telling reporters that the package the House puts together “may not look exactly like the Senate supplemental” and that the House GOP  is “processing through all the various options right now.”

Several top Republican senators told CNN that they are open to sending aid to Ukraine via some kind of loan, rather than the direct assistance in the aid package, after Johnson’s presentation. However, they also emphasized the urgency of Ukraine’s request for more aid.

“I’m OK with that,” said Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I think we will do the right thing and support our allies, and we’ll do it in our national interest, very much in the interest of the American taxpayers.”

“We’re going to push really hard,” said Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, noting that the House needs to take action while balancing the appropriations bills that fund the government. There is another funding deadline to avert a partial government shutdown at the end of next week. “I would like them to move a little quicker, but I understand they do have to get the (appropriations) bills done too.”

However, Republican senators also emphasized Ukraine’s urgent need for more aid – and a loan program through both chambers could further delay funding.

“Whatever it takes to get that supplemental done, I want to see it done. Ukraine deserves our support, Israel deserves our support and Taiwan deserves our support,” said Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, a member of Senate GOP leadership. “We owe it to the American people to reach our industrial base and start actually being able to resupply and equip our military. And we’ve demonstrated in the years since Russia invaded Ukraine that we’re vulnerable.”

Johnson’s assurances to Senate Republicans come as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has made no secret he wants the House to take up the Senate package now and stop dithering.

“The only way to get relief to the Ukrainians and the Israelis quickly is for the House to figure out how to pass the Senate bill,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters, a reference to how the Senate bill also includes aid to Israel. “Anything that’s changed and sent back here, as you all know, even the simplest thing can take a week in the Senate. We don’t have time for all of this.”

McConnell continued, “We’ve got a bill that got 70 votes in the Senate. Give members of the House of Representatives an opportunity to vote on it. That’s the solution.”

Democrats are also not committed to passing a House version of aid, warning that some of the ideas being floated could further complicate aid that is necessary now.

“You know, it feels like Speaker Johnson makes up his strategy one or two days at a time. So it’s really hard to know what the next step is,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. “Speaker Johnson doesn’t need to make up a new plan. He has a bill that’s already passed the Senate that the president says he will sign that he knows has the votes right now in the House. Just call that bill up for a vote.”

Republican Rep. French Hill of Arkansas said Thursday that while the situation in Ukraine is urgent and he has seen the devastation firsthand on multiple trips to the region, it is important for Johnson, the relatively newly-minted speaker, to make the decision on the best approach going forward.

“I want to give Speaker Johnson the room was aa a new speaker from whom he has inherited a tough situation to deliver an approach that he like to try,” he told reporters. “And I think that’s a fair-minded thing to do. And I think we have the time and the resources to do that.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.

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