How this obscure House procedure can pass Ukraine aid without Mike Johnson

Effort to use a ‘discharge petition’ to circumvent Republican leaders who are blocking a $95bn defence bill to aid US allies Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
,Eric Garcia
Wednesday 13 March 2024 20:35 GMT
Related video: White House announces 300 bln USD in weapons aid to Ukraine

House Democrats have begun their efforts to force a vote on Ukraine aid on the floor of the House over the protestations of Speaker Mike Johnson.

Democrats are attempting to use a discharge petition to circumvent the Republican leaders in charge of what gets a vote of the full House.

The effort, which faces long odds of success, was put into action on Tuesday. Democratic Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the ranking member on the House Rules Committee, sponsored the petition, which would need 218 signatures to force the lower chamber to consider a $95bn bill passed by the Senate which includes aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan.

“I don’t believe in unconditional aid to the Israeli Government particularly, especially in this juncture, when there’s been a total lack of restraint,” New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told The Independent on Wednesday. But some progressive Democrats fear have serious reservations because of Israel’s conduct during its war with Hamas in Gaza.

“The discharge petition that has unconditional aid to Israel? I’m voting no,” Illinois Democratic Representative Delia Ramirez said.

A discharge petition, in US parliamentary procedure, is a way of pushing a bill out of a committee by discharging the panel from considering the legislation at hand. An absolute majority – 218 signatures – is needed for passage. Democrats currently have 213 members.

Democratic Virginia Representative Abigail Spanberger, one of the signatories of the petition, told The Independent: “Do we want to coddle Vladimir Putin and allow Russia to win? Or do we want to do the job of supporting an ally in their fight for freedom? I mean, that's essentially the question.”

While some Republican members support aid for Ukraine, many of them would be hard-pressed to go around their leadership.

Discharge petitions are also used in state legislatures when a committee chair refuses to put legislation on the panel’s agenda, meaning that it would never reach the full House.

The use of a discharge petition means that an absolute majority of the House can force a vote on legislation over the opposition of House leaders who control what bills and resolutions make it to the floor.

Using this method, the opposition party, currently the Democrats, can hijack the legislative agenda on an issue that divides the majority party, such as Ukraine aid.

Successful discharge petitions are exceedingly rare – the last petition to force a bill to the floor of the House was in 2015. The problem is that the issue at hand has to be important enough for members to disobey their leaders, something becoming rarer as politics becomes more tribal and extreme partisanship pushes the parties further apart.

The discharge petition was put into House rules in 1910 when a package of measures was intended to limit the power of the Republican Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon of Illinois. The version now used was adopted in 1931. Four years later, the rules were changed so that an absolute majority was needed instead of just a third of the chamber’s members.

A number of progressive Democrats are hesitant to send more aid to Israel, which the bill passed by the Senate does, after more than 30,000 people have been killed in Gaza. Calls have been made to put conditions on the aid to make sure that Israel follows guidelines on international human rights.

Some Republicans open to more aid to Ukraine have slammed the Democrats for insisting on passing the Senate version of the aid package, as they connect foreign aid to the security at the Southern border.

This comes after Republicans rejected a bipartisan border security bill after former President Donald Trump came out against it, but some Republicans are still arguing that border funding must pass alongside foreign aid.

Ukraine has divided congressional Republicans between old-school establishment types such as outgoing Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who strongly supports sending aid to Ukraine, and the Trump wing of the party which is steadfastly moving in a more isolationist direction.

Republican Pennsylvania Representative Brian Fitzpatrick introduced his own discharge petition, which included both aid for Ukraine and border security funding. A number of moderate Democrats backed the package.

But Democrats have argued that Mr Fitzpatrick’s proposed measure would still need to be approved by the Senate and Ukraine simply doesn’t have the time to wait.

The White House announced on Tuesday that the US will send $300m of weapons to Ukraine even as $10bn is needed to restore the stockpiles of weapons it has sent to Kyiv to aid them in its fight against the years-long Russian invasion.

The Pentagon located some cost savings in its contracts to find the funds for the weapons package while Congress has so far failed to pass further aid. It’s the first weapons package announced since late last year when the Pentagon said it was out of funding to send more weapons to the wartorn country.

More recently, officials have revealed the $10bn overdraft. The funds used to replenish stockpiles have meant that the Pentagon has been able to send existing munitions, and air defence systems, in addition to other weapons from reserve inventories using a presidential drawdown authority to send weapons to Ukraine and subsequently order new weapons to replenish the stores.

Despite it being likely to pass the lower chamber, House Speaker Mike Johnson has refused to bring the $95bn package to the floor.

While Russia has plenty of supplies as it’s transformed into a war economy, Ukrainian forces are now rationing munitions on the front lines as they attempt to hang on.

In June last year, the Pentagon also suddenly found extra funds for Ukraine after it said it had overestimated previous weapons shipments to the country by $6.2bn.

The US has sent more than $44.2bn of aid to Ukraine since the start of Russia’s invasion. The Director of the CIA William Burns has told Congress that Ukrainian units have told him that they were down to their last dozens of artillery shells and other kinds of ammunition. He added that the recent Ukrainian withdrawal from the eastern city of Avdiika was caused by resupply failures, not a lack of Ukrainian willpower.

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