There's a reason you haven't heard the White House bash Johnson's Ukraine aid ideas

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Aides to President Joe Biden have been privately working behind the scenes to ensure House Speaker Mike Johnson can put a $60 billion aid package for Ukraine up for a vote — and survive it politically.

The White House has maintained contact with Johnson’s office about Ukraine aid throughout Congress’s two-week recess, according to two administration officials. And while the president has publicly pressured House Republicans to pass the Ukraine aid package, he and his team have held off on aggressively attacking the speaker over the drawn-out process for getting it passed. Instead, they’ve sought to give Johnson breathing room as he leads a fractious GOP caucus with an ever-shrinking majority.

For all their frustration with the painstakingly slow pace in the House, administration officials are privately hopeful their approach could result in Congress starting to move on an aid package later this month.

What that final package looks like remains unclear. The White House provided little official pushback following Johnson’s interview Sunday night on Fox News Channel, when he floated the ideas of making some of the Ukraine aid a loan or repurposing some $300 billion in seized Russian assets. Democratic officials who have talked with the administration say that the White House has been deliberately private about whether it views either idea as realistic or likely to end up in a final deal.

Ultimately, the focus continues to be on convincing Johnson of the urgency of getting aid to Ukraine.

The months-long slog over Ukraine funding underscores a larger difficulty in getting major legislation enacted in a presidential year and within a divided government. While the Biden administration’s overarching legislative strategy has long been to let Congress work its will, Johnson and the tiny Republican majority present challenges.

There is no preexisting relationship between the administration and the new speaker, who is trying to weave a legislative strategy through a conference that includes Ukraine hawks and at least one member who is trying to kick him out of the speakership. And so, White House officials have sought to build one, all while maintaining a steady drumbeat of briefings for the House on the importance of enacting new Ukraine money.

Senior White House adviser and counselor to the president, Steve Ricchetti, and Office of Legislative Affairs Director Shuwanza Goff have been the administration’s main points of contact with Johnson’s office, according to an administration official. While they have frequently discussed the importance of Ukraine aid, any question of Johnson’s future in the speakership — and whether Democratic votes may be needed to preserve it — has been left to the House.

“We do not comment on private discussions with legislators one way or the other,” said White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates. “Like President Biden said in his State of the Union, our own urgent national security interests are on the line because Putin will not stop at Ukraine, but Ukraine can stop Putin.”

For weeks, administration officials have publicly maintained that the simplest path forward is Johnson bringing up the Senate bill for a vote and the House passing it. Even some Republicans acknowledge that it would pass if given a chance. It’s also Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)’s preferred path, a point he expressed to Johnson in a late February meeting between the four congressional leaders at the White House.

Administration officials argue that amending the Senate bill will only further delay aid, given the time needed to draft legislation in the House, get a bill through that chamber and then get the modified legislation back through the Senate.

But they also aren’t foreclosing the idea that Johnson may need to find some cover to bring the Senate-approved aid package to the House floor — whether it be a semblance of a policy win or just the confidence that, should he rely on Democratic votes to pass the legislation, it won’t end up costing him his job. Johnson has made clear that the House isn’t going to just rubberstamp the Senate product. That leaves only one realistic solution: that the bill changes somehow.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took his message directly to Johnson in a phone call last week, adding later in a social media post that Ukrainian leadership recognizes “that there are differing views in the House of Representatives.” While the White House has closely coordinated with Zelenskyy on enacting the aid, the administration did not coordinate the call between the two leaders, according to a person familiar with the process who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details.

There are conversations among House Republicans — some of which involve the speaker’s team — on how to get the supplemental moving, according to a Republican aide. Those talks have addressed imposing new sanctions on Russia, using money seized from Russian oligarchs, lifting a Biden administration moratorium on liquified natural gas (LNG) export facilities and converting the aid into a loan, according to two aides familiar with them.

While Johnson has pushed the administration to reverse its moratorium on construction of an LNG pipeline in his home state of Louisiana, it is far from certain that a policy win on the issue would appease conservatives. For Biden, it could further alienate climate activists who would harshly oppose such a move.

Converting the aid into a loan — the idea supported by former President Donald Trump — has its own obstacles.

While economic aid can be delivered in the form of a loan, military aid is more complex. But there are other reasons Democrats are sour on the idea: A sizable loan would depress Ukraine’s credit rating as it fights a war and, eventually, tries to rebuild. There are also concerns about the new precedent it would set for providing foreign aid.

Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, who is in frequent touch with members of the administration, said the notion of making Ukraine repay the aid money as a loan was “a little silly and simplistic,” especially given that the country will have to spend billions rebuilding its own infrastructure when the war is over. Beyond that, he said, Congress can’t redirect the $300 billion in seized Russian assets because most of that money is being held in Europe, not the U.S.

“The Europeans are not comfortable seizing these assets at all. They think it sets a horrible precedent, that it will undermine the Euro and that it could face legal jeopardy,” Bremmer said. “And Europe is doing more for Ukraine currently than the United States is, so they just don’t feel the need to go there.”

Budging Johnson has been difficult. In late February, Biden convened the four congressional leaders for an Oval Office meeting that participants described as unusually intense due to the pressure brought to bear on the newly minted speaker. McConnell joined Democratic leaders and CIA director William Burns, who presented a classified briefing about how arms shortages were hurting Ukraine on the battlefield, in attempting to pressure Johnson, warning him that history would judge him harshly should Russia win the war because America abandoned Ukraine.

Johnson, outwardly unmoved, continued to demand that Biden take action to secure the U.S.-Mexico border before any foreign aid was approved.

Weeks later in his State of the Union address, Biden led the speech with a call about the importance of passing the lingering supplemental, asserting that there was broad bipartisan support for doing so — and pointing out that he had been willing to make concessions to Republicans on border security that the GOP walked away from.

The primary reason for that was Trump, who was loath to allow Biden a bipartisan win on immigration during a campaign year.