Biden must risk his party’s wrath to secure Ukraine’s future


Published February 14, 2024

The Telegraph

President Biden says that US support for Ukraine is essential to the fight of democracy against autocracy. Seventy Senators from both parties agree with him, which is why they passed a large $95 billion package Wednesday that also includes military aid for Israel. The fact that it faces long odds of passage in the Republican-controlled House, however, will put Biden to the test. He needs to pass the test by emulating great presidents of the past and risk angering his party’s base to secure Ukraine’s future.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R – La.) is simply reflecting the will of his members when he states he will not bring the measure to the floor for a vote. Many conservatives, like their allies in the Senate, oppose aid for Ukraine at all. The larger number, however, want to use the bill as leverage to get a better deal on controlling the US-Mexico border than Senate Republicans were able to procure. The two groups combined are easily a supermajority in the GOP caucus, making it politically infeasible for Johnson to push for passage.

Biden, then, has to decide how much Ukraine aid matters to him. He now knows that to get Republican support for the bill he needs to give them more on immigration control. That will anger many Democrats and push him into something he has avoided throughout his presidency, an open break with his party’s ideological base. It’s no surprise, then, that Biden is trying to build public pressure on Republicans to get them to change course.

That’s not going to happen, though, as House Republicans know they would face the ire of their primary voters if they were to recant. Maga forces and conservative leaders revolted instantly when the details of the border deal Biden cut with Senate Republican leaders were released. Passing an aid bill many oppose anyway without getting something in return that would satisfy the conservative base is a political non-starter.

This means Biden’s only shot at avoiding a party-splitting compromise is to convince a few Republicans to join with House Democrats to file what is called a discharge petition. House rules stipulate that a petition containing signatures of a majority of members can force a matter to be heard on the House floor, bypassing the Speaker completely. Since Democrats have 213 members, they would need only five Republicans to join them to overrule Johnson and get the Senate-passed clean aid bill up for a vote.

That’s going to be a very tough hill to climb. Signing a discharge petition while in the majority is effectively a vote of no confidence in the leadership. Doing this could easily cost a member their committee slots, staff, and other perks that come with being part of the majority. Biden and Democrats would have to offer these members a lot in exchange for their signature, and thus far have not shown themselves willing to do so.

It should soon become clear that neither the discharge petition nor a change of heart from the GOP House leadership is in the cards. Biden will then have to make a decision that could define his presidency. He can either placate his progressives on border control, thereby dooming the Ukraine aid bill to defeat. Or he can make a deal regarding border control with House Republicans that enough of them can support to put the bill on track for passage with bipartisan support.

Biden should bite the bullet and make the deal because saving Ukraine is the most important task before him. Ukraine’s collapse will heighten the risk of war as Russian troops swarm towards the border with southern NATO nations like Poland. Allowing the plucky nation to be conquered will also be a massive reversal for American leadership globally. Countries like to back winners, and even democratic nations like South Korea could start to look at making nice with China rather than risk American betrayal. He won’t want to get progressives angry with him, but he knows deep down that maintaining America’s web of alliances is essential to national security.

The deal will also help him win re-election even if it angers progressives. Biden’s political problem is that many independents who don’t like Trump also don’t think Biden is up to the job. Biden’s age is a big reason for that, but Biden also does not display the sort of public leadership Americans have come to expect from their presidents. He may be a master at the behind the scenes maneuvering, but voters want to see someone lead from the front. Making a bold statement and taking political risks could convince those wavering voters that Biden does have what it wakes for a second term.

Biden is old enough to remember that Ronald Reagan took those risks in his first term. Reagan’s job approval ratings were low in 1982 and early 1983 as a recession and global disorder made many think he was a failure. Reagan knew he had to fix Social Security and close the budget deficit to show moderates in advance of the 1984 election that he could solve problems. He cut deals with Democrats on each that led to his party’s most conservative members to revolt and oppose his deal. But the bills passed, moderates were convinced, and Reagan built on that to win a second term in a stunning landslide.

Biden has sought all of his adult life to stand astride the globe as president. Having achieved that lofty goal, he now must show he can effectively wield the power he has obtained. That means, as it always does, taking immense political risk to set a course and follow through under pressure and uncertainty. How Biden responds to the House stalling on the Ukraine bill will tell us whether he is up to that challenge. 


Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.

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