House Speaker Mike Johnson is committed to advancing Ukraine aid. But it will be a difficult task

House Speaker Mike Johnson has sat on a funding package that would send desperately needed ammunition and weaponry to Ukraine for over a month

WASHINGTON (AP) — For over a month, House Speaker Mike Johnson has sat on a funding package that would send desperately needed ammunition and weaponry to Ukraine, mulling how best to gain a grasp of what is expected to be a difficult lift in the House.

The Republican speaker has indicated he will attempt to push for approval of tens of billions in wartime funding for Ukraine, as well as Israel, once the House returns in April. Yet it will be perhaps his most difficult task since he took the speaker's gavel late last year.

“We'll turn our attention to it and we won't delay on that,” the Louisiana representative said of the Ukraine package at a news conference last week.

Still, Johnson has waited to act at a time when Russia is renewing its missile attacks on Kyiv. In Ukraine's eastern regions, soldiers are running low on ammunition as they attempt to hold off a surge of Russian soldiers to the frontlines. European leaders and analysts are warning that the conflict could grow into a much larger clash that involves NATO allies and direct American military involvement if Russia prevails in Ukraine.

Johnson is facing dilemmas himself in Congress. Should funding for Ukraine’s government be loans or a typical grant? Should the $95 billion package that the Senate approved for Ukraine, Israel and other allies be handled as one or broken into pieces? And how decisively should he push for the House to act when his own leadership position is being threatened?

Rep. Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called it “devastating” that the House has departed for a two-week break with the aid package left unresolved. He, along with many Democrats, called on Johnson to allow a vote on a Senate-approved bill.

“If you’re serious about helping Ukraine, you just put the bill on the floor and let’s vote -- let the House have its will," he said.

But hardline conservatives in the House, adamantly opposed to aid for Ukraine, are already frustrated with Johnson's willingness to work with Democrats to pass legislation — so much so that it could cost him his job. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right Republican from Georgia, has filed a motion to vacate Johnson as speaker and warned him not to put Ukraine funding on the House floor.

"He should not bring funding for Ukraine," Greene told reporters on the Capitol steps just after she filed the motion to vacate.

Meanwhile, an old guard of Republican defense hawks has put increasing pressure on Johnson to advance an aid package in some form. Most Democrats have indicated support for the Senate-passed legislation. However, a growing number of Democrats have raised concerns about Israel's deadly campaign in Gaza, and a significant number of them are expected to oppose any funding for offensive weaponry for Israel.

The dynamic leaves Johnson with a shifting and unpredictable House at a time when he will need to win broad, bipartisan support. Before becoming speaker, Johnson was deeply skeptical of approving funding for Ukraine and voted repeatedly against it. But now, occupying one of the most powerful positions in Washington, Johnson is poised to become a crucial ally for Kyiv at a time when America's commitments abroad are in doubt.

“We understand the role that America plays in the world. We understand the importance of sending a strong signal to the world that we stand by our allies and we cannot allow terrorists and tyrants to march through the globe,” Johnson said.

Fond of quoting former President Ronald Reagan, Johnson has repeatedly cited “peace through strength” as one of his guiding principles. In private, he has indicated he will work towards a vote on Ukraine aid once the House returns in April, according to two people who discussed the private conversations on the condition of anonymity. But he has revealed little about how he intends to do it.

One idea Johnson has raised is splitting the funding for Ukraine and Israel into separate votes, which could allow him to navigate the fractures in support for the two countries between Republicans and Democrats.

Senior Republicans are also working on a package that would loan Ukraine money to keep its government operating. Most of the money in the package would be allocated for purchasing weaponry from U.S. defense manufacturers, then sending them to Ukraine. The group of GOP defense hawks has also advanced legislation called the Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity for Ukrainians, or REPO Act, which would allow the U.S. to tap frozen Russian central bank assets to compensate Ukraine for damages from the invasion.

“I would like to be doing it as soon as possible. I think the situation in Ukraine is dire,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, who is leading the push as the Republican chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

But McCaul added that Johnson is in “a very difficult spot” as Greene's ouster threat hangs over his head.

For now, Greene has not asked that the motion immediately be brought up for a vote, meaning that it could remain little more than a threat. Also, other conservatives have suggested they do not want to force an ouster of Johnson, even as they express displeasure about how he had led the House. Democrats too have suggested they could protect Johnson from being ousted as speaker, especially if he is being punished for bringing the funding for Kyiv to the floor.

Still, some Republicans have quietly worried that Johnson will not be able to muster the support for Ukraine, especially if he has to gain the two-thirds support to bring the bill under a streamlined process. A small group of Republicans has worked to gain support for a "discharge petition" — a seldom-successful procedural tool that can circumvent the speaker's control over which bills come up for a vote by gaining 218 member signatures, representing a majority of the House.

“This is the only way you’re going to get a bill passed and you can do it with 218 votes,” said Rep. Don Bacon, a centrist Republican who has advanced the discharge petition drive.

Democrats have tried the discharge petition approach as well, but that effort was intended more to put pressure on the speaker.

Meanwhile, the mood in Kyiv has grown tense as the city withstands missile attacks and officials await word from Washington on approval of the aid, said Shelby Magid, deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, which advocates for American cooperation with Europe.

“So many Ukrainians know the names of members of Congress and the different procedures now," she said during a trip to Kyiv last week. “Their lives depend on it.”