Speaker Mike Johnson signals that Ukraine aid, coupled with border security, is next on GOP agenda

Speaker of the House Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., walks to the senate side for lunch with Senate GOP members at the Capitol Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON (AP) — New Speaker Mike Johnson told Republican senators Wednesday that a fresh Ukraine aid package linked to U.S. border security will come quickly in the House, as soon as lawmakers wrap up the $14.5 billion Israel aid package that is heading for passage later this week.

Johnson, who has been on the job a week, made the trip across the Capitol to speak privately with GOP senators to outline the agenda ahead. He also said the House plans to pass a stopgap bill to fund the government into next year to avoid a federal shutdown on Nov. 17 when current funding runs out.

“Look, we all like the new speaker we want him to be successful,” said Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, who opposes more aid to Ukraine, afterward. "And that was the tenor of the conversation."

Johnson was greeted with applause at the start of the lunch meeting, a get-to-know-you session for the new GOP speaker that many senators had never met — or even heard of — until he won a longshot race for House speaker to replace the ousted Kevin McCarthy.

The new speaker told the senators Ukraine needs U.S. aid as it battles Russia, but that there was no way President Joe Biden's request for a nearly $106 billion supplemental funding request that included Israel could be passed through the House.

“'We want to take up Ukraine,'" was his message, said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who opposes more funding for the overseas war.

Hawley said Johnson told the Republican senators the “next order of business” after the Israel package would be the Ukraine-U.S. border package.

The Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday that the House's Israel-only approach was dead on arrival in the Senate.

The House's approach to emergency funds for Israel requires that the $14.5 billion be offset with spending cuts elsewhere — namely, gutting the beefed-up Internal Revenue Service funds Biden and Democrats secured last year to go after tax cheats. The Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday the House's bill would actually end up costing the federal government, $12.5 billion because of the reduction in tax revenues.

Schumer called the House's Israel bill that leaves out Ukraine aid “a joke.”

Johnson's position puts him politically sideways with the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who is working to approve Israel and Ukraine aid together, aid to Taiwan and funding U.S. border security.

But the GOP leader McConnell had also made it clear earlier this week that Democrats “will have to accept” a serious US-Mexico border security measure as part of any package with Ukraine funding.

During Wednesday's private lunch, Johnson echoed comments he made last week, saying the U.S. Congress would not abandon Ukraine even as it first works to shore up aid for Israel.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla. said his impression was Johnson wants to fund government in a responsible manner. “We want to make sure that we want Ukraine to win, but we’ve got to do all these things in a responsible manner and in the right process,” he said.

The lunchtime session opened, as it often does, with a prayer, as the speaker a staunch conservative evangelical Christian presented himself to his colleagues.

Conservatives, in particular, liked what they heard.

"A good person,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., who said there’s “not a rough edge” on the new speaker, even when he is being blunt. “He just sounds nice.”

Said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, “The number one thing I recommend to newly-elected senators, newly-elected House members is do what you said you would do, and I think the speaker is showing an admirable commitment to doing exactly that.”