Johnson Defies Biden on Ukraine and Border Deal

Johnson Defies Biden on Ukraine and Border Deal

Johnson spoke to reporters after his White House meeting.
By Yuval Rosenberg and Michael Rainey
Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Good Wednesday evening! Here's what's happening.

Johnson Sticks to Hard Line as Biden Presses for a Deal on Ukraine and Border

President Joe Biden met with congressional leaders at the White House on Wednesday afternoon to press for a $110 billion national security supplemental spending package including additional support for Ukraine and Israel. Yet while both House and Senate leaders emerged from the meeting calling it "productive" or "very positive," it’s clear that differences over border reforms remain an obstacle to any deal.

"I told the president what I have been saying for many months and that is that we must have change at the border, substantive policy change," House Speaker Mike Johnson told reporters after the meeting.

The Louisiana Republican also reiterated that he and his members still want answers about the strategy and endgame in Ukraine’s war to fend off Russian invasion — and accountability for the funding the United States provides. "We understand that all these things are important, but we must insist — we must insist — that the border be the top priority," Johnson said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that Biden was open to border changes and that the leaders had largely agreed that they must provide more aid for Ukraine and address the southern border.

"There was a large amount of agreement around the table that we must do Ukraine, and we must do border. There was tremendous focus on Ukraine, and an understanding that if we don't come to Ukraine's aid, that the consequences for America around the globe would be nothing short of devastating," Schumer said. "There were a couple of people in the room that said let's do border first. We said we have to do both together."

Schumer said he is more optimistic now that the Senate can reach a border deal unlocking support for more aid to Ukraine, Israel and allies in the Indo-Pacific region. "I am more optimistic than ever before that we come to an agreement. I put the chances a little bit greater than half. And that's the first time I can say that," he told reporters.

The House isn’t likely to go along, though. Republicans had pushed for border security measures as a precursor to any additional Ukraine aid, but Johnson has insisted that the bipartisan border bill being negotiated in the Senate would fall short of House GOP demands and be dead on arrival in his chamber.

"I don’t think now is the time for comprehensive immigration reform because we know how complicated that is," he said hours before the White House meeting. "You can’t do that quickly. I do think it’s past time to secure the border."

Johnson reiterated that the border must be secured before more aid could go to Ukraine. "I’m going to tell the president what I’m telling all of you, what we’ve told the American people: border, border, border," he said. "We have to secure our own border before we talk about doing anything else."

He also suggested that even a deal that met his criteria might still not be enough to win Republican support for Ukraine.

Republican rifts remain: House and Senate Republican leaders are divided on the supplemental bill and aid to Ukraine. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged his members to take the deal being negotiated for Republicans by Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma. "I think it’s time to go ahead with the supplemental, and I’m anticipating that it’ll be before us next week," McConnell told reporters.

McConnell and other senior Senate Republicans are urging their members to make the most of the leverage they have at this moment and not wait for the possibility of a Republican-controlled Congress and White House next year. "If we had a 100 percent Republican government — president, House, Senate — we probably would not be able to get a single Democratic vote to pass what Senator Lankford and the administration are trying to get together on," McConnell said. "So this is a unique opportunity to accomplish something in divided government that wouldn’t be there under unified government."

Staving off a shutdown: The Senate on Tuesday night cleared one hurdle on the path to a stopgap spending bill needed to avoid a partial government shutdown Friday. Johnson on Wednesday again defended his agreement with Schumer for $1.66 trillion in discretionary spending for fiscal year 2024, which has come under fire from ultraconservatives in his conference.

He also defended his acceptance of a short-term spending measure, known as a continuing resolution or CR, after having said he doesn’t want any more such bills. "I wanted no more CRs until we could move this process forward. We’ve achieved that," Johnson told reporters. "In spite of what people are saying on both sides, this is a better agreement than we had."

Johnson noted that Republicans have the second-smallest House majority in U.S. history and so can’t expect to get everything they want. But, he argued, the current process will result in the Republican goal of passing individual spending bills rather than an omnibus and will allow how appropriators to fight for GOP policy changes in those spending bills.

What’s next: History suggests that McConnell is right about the prospects of a border deal under a Trump administration and Republican-led Congress. But finalizing a deal won’t be easy. Senate negotiators reportedly still have to bridge some key differences, and Johnson still faces the fury of his right-wing members, who remain angry over his spending deal and would erupt over a border deal that failed to meet all of their demands.

The bottom line: Republicans may want to ensure that the border stays a hot-button issue in an election year. Then again, decrying the border crisis but refusing to act on it might be a politically perilous stance.

Chart of the Day: Child Poverty Rebounds

The child poverty rate plunged to a record low of 5.2% during the pandemic, thanks in large part to a temporary boost to the child tax credit, which pumped money into millions of low-income households. But with the end of that program, the child poverty rate has rebounded sharply, as the chart below shows, spurring lawmakers to consider another increase in the value of the tax credit, albeit at a more modest level.

Bloomberg opinion columnist Karl W. Smith writes Wednesday that the proposal unveiled by lawmakers this week to increase the size of the child tax credit for three years — combined with the renewal of some tax breaks for businesses, with the whole package paid for by ending a troubled pandemic era tax program — is a good one. Smith, an economist who previously worked at the right-leaning Tax Foundation, says the increase in the tax program would be worth doing, even if its costs were not offset and ended up costing as much as $100 billion.

"That might sound strange given the dire fiscal straits the US is in, but not all deficit increases are created equal," Smith writes. "The cost of not lowering child poverty is extreme." Smith cites research showing that child poverty costs the U.S. as much as $1 trillion a year, which suggests that spending more now to reduce much bigger costs later makes fiscal sense.


Number of the Day: $125,340

Households with work-based health insurance have lost out on $125,340 in wages on average over the last 30 years due to rising insurance premiums, according to a new analysis published by JAMA Network.

The study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Tufts University and the University of Massachusetts found that the increase in the cost of health insurance premiums claimed nearly 5% of total income over a 32-year period between 1988 and 2019. The study also found that the loss was significantly higher for Black and Hispanic families than it was for White families.

Overall, the researchers concluded that the increasing cost of health insurance is probably associated with decreased household earnings and higher income inequality. Highlighting the study Wednesday, Axios’s Caitlin Owens wrote, "While employers, rather than workers, typically bear the brunt of rising health insurance costs, the study is further evidence that rising premiums are costing workers through wages they would have otherwise received."

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