Johnson Outlines Risky Plan for More Ukraine Aid

Johnson Outlines Risky Plan for More Ukraine Aid

Johnson is preparing a plan for Ukraine aid.
By Yuval Rosenberg and Michael Rainey
Monday, April 1, 2024

Happy Monday and welcome to April!

Congress is still out this week and that’s not an April Fool’s joke. President Joe Biden, meanwhile, hosted the traditional White House Easter Egg roll today and will look to draw some attention this week to his efforts to lower healthcare costs with a speech on Wednesday. Biden will also travel to Baltimore on Friday to survey the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse and discuss the rebuilding effort with state and local officials.

Here’s what we’re watching while waiting for the LSU-Iowa game.

Johnson Outlines Risky Plan for More Ukraine Aid

As he fights to fend off a threat to oust him from his job, Speaker Mike Johnson has also begun to publicly sketch out plans to move ahead with a long-delayed new round of aid to Ukraine.

Many of Johnson’s own party members are strongly opposed to providing more funding for Ukraine, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who has already filed a motion to remove the speaker from his job but has yet to force a vote on the issue. With that threat of a Republican revolt hanging over him, Johnson has been working to construct a Ukraine aid package that might win some more votes from his conservative members, or at least wouldn’t further fuel their ire. On Sunday night, he told Fox News that he expects to move ahead with an aid bill after the House returns from its recess next week, but that the plan would include "some important innovations."

He brought up three ideas:

1. Using the seized assets of Russian oligarchs, which Johnson said would be "pure poetry." The United States and its allies froze about $300 billion of Russian central bank assets after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. A bipartisan bill called the Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity (REPO) for Ukrainians Act would let the administration confiscate the roughly $5 billion of those funds that are in the United States and transfer them to Ukraine.

"While the policy has been taking shape for several months, a series of tense issues and key details still need to be resolved," Politico’s Zachary Warmbrodt writes.

Some officials have worried that the unprecedented move could have unforeseen economic consequences or raise worries about American-held assets. Some U.S. lawmakers reportedly also fear that the funds would be seen as an alternative to providing more assistance. And resistance among EU officials would also need to be addressed.

2. Structuring the assistance as a loan. Some Republicans have embraced this proposal as a way to contain costs after former president Donald Trump floated it.

3. Ramping up natural gas exports. Johnson is reportedly eyeing a measure that would reverse a Biden administration pause on new permits for liquefied natural gas export facilities. "We want to have natural gas exports that will help unfund Vladimir Putin’s war effort there," he said on Fox News.

Republicans would see that as a political win against Biden’s climate agenda, Catie Edmondson of The New York Times notes. "The move," she adds, "would also hand Mr. Johnson a powerful parochial win, unblocking a proposed export terminal in his home state of Louisiana that would be situated along a shipping channel that connects the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Charles."

In his Fox News appearance, Johnson also acknowledged the intraparty challenges he faces and issued a call for Republican unity. He noted that, given the historically slim GOP House majority, he can only afford to lose one Republican on any vote. "So we’re not going to get the legislation that we [Republicans] all desire and prefer," he said, adding that under the current conditions, his party is often focused on stopping Biden’s agenda rather than pursuing major conservative goals that would be impossible to enact.

"We’ve got to drive our conservative agenda and get the incremental wins that are still possible right now," he said before turning to a football metaphor: "We’ve got to realize I can’t throw a Hail Mary pass on every single play. It’s three yards a cloud of dust, right? We’ve got to get the next first down, keep moving, and we’ll do that and we can show the American people what we’re for."

The bottom line: Johnson has indicated that the stalled aid to Ukraine would be a top priority when the House returns, but he hasn’t previously detailed how and when he would bring up that legislation. He has refused to allow the House to simply take up a $95 billion foreign aid package passed by the Senate, leading to months of uncertainty. He’s now searching for a way to provide that aid without sparking a chaotic revolt from his right flank, though the ideas he mentioned are reportedly not final. Johnson knows he will need Democratic votes to pass an aid package, meaning that he has little leverage to tack on a conservative wish list of policies.

19 Million Taxpayers Eligible for Free IRS Filing Program

The IRS is testing a new online system that offers free filing directly through the tax agency, and over the weekend, Commissioner Danny Werfel said that millions of people are eligible to use it this year — far more than initially thought when the Direct File program was announced last fall.

"For the first time ever, 19 million taxpayers across 12 states can file their taxes online for free direct with the IRS," Werfel said in a video message.

The 12 states participating in the test run include five that have state-level income taxes — Arizona, California, Massachusetts, New York and Washington — and seven that do not: Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming. Eligibility requirements for residents of those states are available on the Direct File website.

The Direct File program was authorized by the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which provided the IRS with an initial $80 billion over 10 years to fund modernization and enforcement efforts. Republicans in Congress have gotten the Biden administration to agree to cut $20 billion from that funding and have vowed to make further cuts. Even so, the IRS has pressed ahead with its free alternative to commercial online filing programs, despite pushback from private firms that dominate the multi-billion-dollar business.

A system that "doesn’t stink": The Washington Post’s Shira Ovide recently experimented with the Direct File system and gave it a positive review.

"Direct File was not perfect," she wrote. "Still, I liked using the IRS website — and I definitely prefer it over TurboTax, which annoys me with constant nags for more money and my private data."

In the end, Ovide couldn’t use the system to file her 2023 taxes, since she earned more than $1,500 in interest income and has a Health Savings Account — disqualifying details, at least during this first test run of the system.

Still, Ovide said the experience reminded her that Americans "deserve effective online government services," adding that "Direct File is visible proof that government websites don’t have to stink."

Quote of the Day

"Hospitals are attracted to physicians that offer concierge services because their patients do not come with bad debts or a need for charity care, and most of them have private insurance which pays the hospital very well. They are the ideal patient, from the hospitals’ perspective."

– Gerard Anderson, a hospital finance expert at Johns Hopkins University, quoted in an article by Phil Galewitz of Kaiser Health News. Galewitz reports that concierge physician practices, which charge patients membership fees that can top $4,000 per year simply for the right to see a specific doctor with little or no wait time, have become more common at nonprofit hospitals that largely serve low-income households. The concierge practices provide a steady income stream for tax-exempt hospitals and open the door to referrals for a more affluent clientele.

Galewitz highlights one of the problems with the growth of the concierge model, which typically limits the number of patients a doctor will see to no more than 400. "Every time we see these models expand, we are contracting the availability of primary care doctors for the general population," Jewel Mullen, associate dean for health equity at the University of Texas-Austin’s Dell Medical School, told Galewitz.

Another problem is the cost. An analysis of Medicare claims data found that those enrolled in concierge practices spent between 30% and 50% more on healthcare services.

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