He was among the only Ukraine skeptics in the room on Wednesday as President Joe Biden’s advisers underscored the “critical importance” of the aid in a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House.
But Johnson also risks angering the House conservatives who pose a direct threat to his speakership if he does not secure a complete about-face from the president on his border policies.
Johnson is naturally inclined to side with those conservatives who have grown tired of the war with Russia as it enters its third year. He voted against Ukraine aid repeatedly as a rank-and-file member.
But since assuming the speakership in October, Johnson has signaled he wants to get to “yes” on a deal.
“We understand the necessity about Ukraine funding,” he told reporters on Wednesday, even as he conditioned that aid on “meaningful” border reforms.
In one sense, the political moment presents incredible leverage for Johnson. He can win safeguards on how Ukraine money is spent while taking steps to secure the border, the party’s top priority heading into the 2024 elections.
Given he controls one chamber of one branch of government, the sort of concessions the White House is dangling are enticing.
But the situation is also perilous for Johnson. Conservatives, already upset with him over a spending deal he struck with Democrats, are demanding he reject anything short of H.R. 2, the House’s flagship border bill. Some have threatened to oust him if Ukraine gets more aid, regardless of border concessions.
What’s more, former President Donald Trump has personally injected himself into the debate, urging that Johnson resist an emerging Senate compromise.
So far, Johnson has left the negotiations to Senate Republicans, who appear to have won changes in asylum policy and a new expulsion authority from the White House. The deal, however, will inevitably omit many hard-liners’ demands, given Democrats control the Senate and White House.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), like Johnson, is refusing Ukraine aid unless Democrats agree to “credible” policy changes. But his refusal is based in large part on his desire to get the supplemental through the House. McConnell is one of Congress’s most vocal defense hawks.
Johnson suggested to his conference this month that the Senate deal, at least in its current form, is “dead on arrival” in the House.
But McConnell has pleaded with conservatives not to let perfect be the enemy of good. He told reporters on Wednesday that the negotiations present a “unique opportunity” that won’t come around again if Republicans control the White House next year.
“One of the things I keep reminding my members is if we had a 100% Republican government — president, House, Senate — we would probably not get a single Democratic vote” on the type of border bill being discussed, McConnell said.
Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, suggested the deal would include “real reforms, “not cosmetic fixes or superficial tweaks.”
Part of this messaging is damage control. Johnson tweeted “absolutely not” to supposed leaked details of the agreement last weekend, something the Senate’s lead Republican negotiator, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), dismissed as a lie.
But it also reflects the growing urgency of getting aid passed. McConnell has pressed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to move on the legislation as soon as next week.
Johnson has left himself wiggle room in terms of what he would accept — he uses broad terms like “transformative” and “substantive” to describe the border reforms he is seeking.
But he has also made clear he will reject anything conservatives would regard as a fig leaf. Following the White House meeting, he ticked through policy changes from the reinstatement of “Remain in Mexico” to new restrictions on asylum.
“The House is ready to act. But the legislation has to solve the problem. And that’s the critical point,” Johnson said this week.
The biggest sticking point is parole, an authority Biden has used — or abused, according to Republicans — to admit hundreds of thousands of migrants into the country. The White House has so far refused to curb that authority despite Senate Republicans drawing a “red line” on it.
Biden faces a push and pull of his own. Polling shows him underwater on his handling of the border as he looks ahead to November. Meanwhile, progressives are pressing him not to give too much away to shore himself up with the electorate.
Republicans say Biden has political cover to make a deal — he can argue that Johnson forced his hand. Yet the fact that talks have stalled for weeks suggests he’s given about all of the ground he is willing to give.
Johnson would not be the first speaker to dash hopes for immigration reform. John Boehner famously refused to take up the “Gang of Eight” compromise that passed the Senate in 2013.
But the stakes are fundamentally different, with the fate of Ukraine hopelessly tied up in whether a deal gets done or not.
It was a risky gamble for Biden to link the two — he proposed $14 billion in border spending alongside a request for $60 billion for Ukraine.
But he arguably had little choice. Conservatives had already signaled the price to pay for funding the war would be locking down the border.
The sovereignty of Ukraine may hang on Johnson’s decision — the White House sent its last tranche of aid in December. But so does the trajectory of his speakership.
Johnson has shown a willingness to buck his right flank. He struck a deal with Schumer on top-line spending for the fiscal year with only marginal cuts, much to the dismay of conservatives.
Just two weeks later, he agreed to a short-term patch in government funding without any concessions, angering hard-liners further.
The conservative Freedom Caucus can single-handedly shut down House business, given Johnson’s razor-thin margins in the chamber. Its members already did so once in protest of the spending deal.
But a number have even begun to float the idea of ousting Johnson, as a handful of them did to former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) last year.
Election-year politics make his decision even harder. Trump, running for a second term in the White House, weighed in publicly on the deal for the first time this week and will undoubtedly do so again. He holds enormous sway over the party and the ear of Johnson, who endorsed him for president in November.
In a chamber in which almost half of Republicans have grown resistant to the aid, Trump could shift the math against a deal’s favor.
Johnson has signaled an interest in negotiating directly with the White House. But he’s also driven an increasingly hard line on the issue.
He is demanding Biden take executive action himself and made a trip to Texas in the new year to highlight what has become a crisis at the border. On Ukraine, he’s called on Biden to articulate an exit strategy to the conflict.
Johnson has chosen posturing over negotiating as the Senate inches closer to a deal. But the move could play to his benefit, allowing him to rail against the eventual Senate compromise with an eye toward winning further concessions that would mollify House conservatives.
It’s a tenuous path that could save Biden’s foreign policy agenda and Johnson’s speakership.