US allies hold breath as House readies vote on security assistance bills


After months of deadlock, US Speaker of the House Mike Johnson says he’ll bring a key $95B military aid package to a vote as soon as tomorrow (Saturday).

The package, which contains support for Ukraine, Israel, and US allies in the Indo-Pacific, will be split into separate bills in an attempt to overcome stiff opposition from hard-line members of Johnson’s own Republican Party.

This package has had a rough ride. To date, the US has helped Ukraine defend itself in two main ways:

  • President Biden has used the presidential drawdown authority to ship existing US military stockpiles to Ukraine, and
  • The Pentagon has used its Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) to buy new defence kit for Ukraine from US manufacturers.

Both options were tapped out by the end of 2023, so it was up to Congress to authorise more funding. And that’s when tensions bubbled over.

Proponents argue that, for <3% of annual US defence spending, the US is blunting an autocrat’s attempt at conquest, rebuilding its own defence industrial base, and signalling strength to allies and foes alike, without risking US lives.

Opponents, in turn, have questioned the scale of US support, the degree of US oversight, and the underfunding of other priorities at home, particularly in response to a recent surge of irregular migration across the southern border.

Still, the Democrat-led Senate went on to pass a joint bill in February with 70% bipartisan support, including assistance for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan.

But that bill never made it to the floor of the Republican-controlled House, where hard-line members of Johnson’s own party have threatened to oust him as Speaker if he brings the Ukraine component to a vote. 

So, what changed? Iran’s weekend attack on Israel, plus downbeat reports (and classified briefings) on Ukraine, added a renewed sense of urgency.

Johnson will now roll the dice, hoping to assuage hard-liners by letting the Ukraine package stand on its own – it mostly replicates the Senate bill, though $9B of the $60B for Ukraine would now be “forgivable loans” (rather than grants).

Johnson is also introducing sweeteners, including a fourth bill to sanction Iran and fast-track efforts to cleave TikTok from Beijing, plus a separate border bill.

What’s next? The Republican Party has a razor thin majority in the House, and several of its own lawmakers have already pledged to oppose the Ukraine component. So Johnson will have to rely on Democrat support.

DC is now rife with number-crunching, and there’s still scope for more surprises but, for example, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee says he believes the four bills will pass.

If that happens, Johnson has committed to sending all four bills as a single package back to the Senate for final passage. There’s broad support for the package in the Senate, though still the potential for delays, debate over Israel, and the possibility of more amendments sending us back to the House again.

For his part, President Biden has used an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal to urge speedy approval: “Now is not the time to abandon our friends. The House must pass urgent national-security legislation for Ukraine and Israel, as well as desperately needed humanitarian aid for Palestinians in Gaza.

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

We can see several possible paths ahead. Here are two:

The CIA director just said Ukraine could face total defeat by the end of this year, as its air defence and shell stocks dwindle. If that happens, we’d be left with an emboldened autocrat in Moscow, galvanised rivals in Tehran, Pyongyang, and Beijing, and jittery US allies all around the world. That kind of world leaves the US with fewer (and costlier) options.

Or, the US could help Ukraine defend itself, ratchet up the war’s already staggering costs on Russia, allow Europe’s defence industrial base time to revive, and leave a mostly free Ukraine (rather than occupying Russia) along NATO’s border, while spooked autocrats elsewhere re-think whether they can fare any better against determined resistance and 3% of US annual defence spending.

Also worth noting:

  • The proposed $95B in combined security assistance includes $60B for Ukraine, $26B for Israel ($4B of which is to replenish Israeli air defences), and $8B for partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific ($2B of which is for Taiwan).
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