Mike Johnson’s Israel test: Few allies, fewer options

Mike Johnson’s quandary on Israel and Ukraine funding illustrates one thing: The House’s right wing is still in the driver’s seat.

As the new Speaker of the House ignores calls from his Senate colleague Mitch McConnell and pushes forward with a plan to separate military funding for Ukraine and Israel into different aid packages — presumably to allow conservatives to vote against the former — it is increasingly clear that for lack of a better option, Mr Johnson is playing from the appeasement playbook authored by his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy.

Where Mr McCarthy’s efforts to string along the right wing of his party and hold on to a tenuous majority ended in failure, Mr Johnson hopes he will find success. It’s hard to see how it ends any differently for him, absent a change of heart (or strategy) from the Matt Gaetz-led holdout faction. And he has far less time to establish himself as Speaker before he faces a major test: A government shutdown deadline looms on 17 November, just two weeks away, when Mr McCarthy’s last gasp as GOP leader will truly fade away and a bipartisan short-term funding deal expires.

Centrists in the GOP as well as the vast majority of the Democratic Party are aligned against Mr Johnson’s efforts to divide Israel and Ukraine funding into two different bills. At present, House Republicans are rallying behind a dead-on-arrival package that would offset funding for Israel by slashing other funding for the IRS, a favourite conservative bogeyman, which has no hope of passing the Senate or being signed into law. With the conflict in Gaza escalating and the prospect of a greater regional conflict looking increasingly likely, Republicans in the lower chamber have drawn criticism from vocal supporters of Israel in the US for unnecessarily politicising the issue of funding for Israel’s military.

“Mike Johnson and Donald Trump gave America in debt and now suddenly, he won’t even help Jews protect themselves,” Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough, a former GOP congressman himself, said on Tuesday. “It is so gross. And making it even grosser, he says: ‘Here’s what we’re going to do: We will protect the Jews if you protect the billionaires.’”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is not throwing his House colleague any bones either. Where he largely refrained from commenting on the House Speaker race or the dealmaking of Mr McCarthy as the latter hoped to avert a government shutdown, the Senate GOP leader has not been shy in pushing back against the House GOP’s strategy.

“At the risk of repeating myself, the threats facing America and our allies are serious and they’re intertwined. If we ignore that fact, we do so at our own peril,” Mr McConnell warned in a floor speech on Tuesday.

His Senate GOP allies have been even less charitable in their descriptions of Mr Johnson and his efforts in recent days. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, told reporters that separating funding for Israel, Ukraine, and additional money for the southern border requested by the White House would be a “huge mistake”.

And Senator John Cornyn of Texas, another Republican tied to leadership, simply quipped: “I wonder how long he’ll be Speaker for?”, according to The Hill.

The White House, predictably, announced that President Joe Biden would veto the House GOP bill were it to reach his desk.

"This bill is bad for Israel, for the Middle East region, and for our own national security," the Office of Management of Budget declared in a statement on the legislation.

Republicans in the US Senate who spoke to The Independent on Wednesday expressed optimism that the two chambers would be able to come together on an agreement, though there was little speculation about whether Mr Johnson’s career in leadership would endure the battle.

Susan Collins, who sits on the Appropriations panel, said that she expected that the two chambers would work out their differences and that funding to Israel would not be endangered.

Marco Rubio, meanwhile, dismissed the idea that the issues of funding for border security, Israel and Ukraine needed to be linked together to have hopes of clean passage. He argued that support for Ukraine, which is the most politically contested of the three, would still find “majority” support in the House.

“We can get it done,” he assured The Independent.

But in the House, Mr Johnson is between a rock and a hard place; he could push a clean funding bill for Israel absent the politically-charged funding cuts, but even that could be viewed as capitulation to Democrats by his far-right caucus members. Unlike his Senate colleagues, he faces the very real possibility of another rebellion from the far right if their demands are not met.

In the end, the fight over funding for Ukraine and Israel, with the backdrop of a shockingly bloody war in Gaza, may be a test for the far-right as well: Is there anyone in the House GOP who can run this caucus for a sustained period of time? And is the holdout caucus capable of coming to grips with the political realities of being in the minority?