Image for Clock Ticking on Military Aid to Ukraine, Israel
Delays in military aid have contributed to battlefield reversals for Ukrainian forces.

If Speaker Falters, Rarely Used Discharge Petition May Force House Floor Vote

It may take a miracle to get U.S. military aid to Ukraine, and the fairy godmother may be a congressional discharge petition. Two of them are circulating in the House.

Discharge petitions are a rarely used – and rarely successful – procedural maneuver to bypass a committee and House leadership to force a House floor vote on a contentious issue. The Brookings Institution, which keeps track of the disposition of discharge petitions, says there have only been 639 of them since 1935. Less than 4 percent were successful.

The percentage is a little higher for discharge petitions that stimulated House action on the issues involved.

In the 21st century, only two discharge petitions have been successful. In 2002, Republicans bucked their own GOP speaker to approve campaign finance reform and, in 2015, a bipartisan group of lawmakers voted to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank.

House Democrats have rounded up 177 signatures to bring the Senate national security package with aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan to the floor. They need 218 signatures.

The second discharge petition, pushed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, would force a floor vote on a national security package developed by the Problem-Solvers Caucus that also contains border security provisions.

Since a rule change adopted in 1993, the names of signatories are made public immediately, which can give members pause before signing. Once a discharge petition achieves 218 signatures, it is locked into the House schedule on a designated “Discharge Day”.

Why Discharge Petitions
Congressional observers believe there are enough Democrats and Republicans to approve either proposal on the House floor – if there is a House floor vote. The ball is still in the hands of Speaker Mike Johnson, who is trying to keep his job in the face hardline positions by far-right members of his House caucus.

Johnson has been busy overseeing nitty-gritty negotiations on Fiscal Year 2024 spending bills before the latest stopgap spending measure expires this weekend. The final compromise was just reached on funding for the Department of Homeland Security, the agency headed by Secretary Alejandro Majorkas, whom House Republicans impeached.

Getting past spending bills may clear the decks for dealing with what started as a $105 billion supplemental spending request last October by President Biden. The Senate national security package was pared down to $95 billion and passed February 13 on a 70-29 vote.

The Senate package was to include a bipartisan compromise on border security., which Biden had agreed to support. However, at the urging of GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, Senate Republicans balked at including border security provisions, which were intended to make it easier for House Republicans to vote for the package.

Trump objected to the border security provisions, many of which were ones he previously had supported, because he wanted to keep immigration as his leading presidential campaign issue.

Senate National Security Bill
The Senate bill would provide $60 billion in military aid to Ukraine. Israel would receive $14.1 billion in security assistance and $2.44 billion would go to support U.S. Central Command operations in the Red Sea. Nearly $5 billion was allocated to support Taiwan and other Indo-Pacific partners.

More than $9 billion in humanitarian assistance was included to provide food, water, shelter, medical care and other essential services to civilians in Gaza, the West Bank, Ukraine and other populations caught in conflict zones. And, $481 million was approved to support displaced Ukrainians.

The bill also contained the Fentanyl Eradication and Narcotics Deterrence Act, called the FEND Off Act. It declares international trafficking of fentanyl as a national emergency and requires the president to impose financial sanctions on transnational criminal organizations, from chemical suppliers in China to Mexican cartels.

Problem-Solvers Compromise
The bipartisan group’s proposal, dubbed the Defending Borders, Defending Democracy Act, slims down military aid to $47.6 billion for Ukraine and $10.4 billion to Israel.

This proposal includes border security provisions, including the controversial Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, that were in HR 2 that a mostly Republican majority passed in the House.

Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, co-chair of the Problem-Solvers Caucus, said, “The Speaker’s got to manage the [Republican] conference. He’s doing the best he can to do. But I also think it’s incumbent upon members that, if there’s not successful progress on time-sensitive existential matters, that we do what we have to do to protect our country.”

“If there’s not successful progress on time-sensitive existential matters,
then we do what we have to do to protect our country.”

Johnson’s Next Move
The Speaker has sent mixed signals on what he intends to do. He signaled to Republican senators he would allow a bill to move in the House providing military aid to Ukraine. He also raised the prospect of separating military aid to Israel. The House has already passed a stand-alone military aid bill for Israel. Johnson also has reiterated that the top priority for House Republicans is border security.

“We’re looking at all the options on all the issues on the table, and we’re just not ready to make a pronouncement on that yet,” Johnson said late last week as negotiations were still continuing on spending bills.

“I believe, and the American people believe, we have to secure our own border as the top priority, and I think that is a sentiment that the vast majority of the people in the country expect and deserve. And we’re going to continue to press for that,” Johnson told reporters.

One option that has quietly circulated is turning some or all new military aid to Ukraine into a loan. Trump reportedly has blessed that idea.

Texas Republican Congressman Michael McCaul, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who has pressed hard for more Ukraine, said he believes Johnson will move legislation after appropriations are approved. He declined to predict what would be in the legislation.

“The great unanswered question at the moment is that Mike Johnson keeps telling everybody he’s going to get aid to Ukraine, he’s going to get aid to Israel. But nobody has any idea how,” says Washington Congressman Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

In that vortex of anticipation and uncertainly looms two fairy godmothers, either of which could suddenly gather the necessary signatures to force a House floor vote and take the matter out of Johnson’s control.