US Congress averts shutdown but the deadlock remains over Ukraine aid

<span>Republican House speaker Mike Johnson at the Capitol in Washington, on 29 February 2024.</span><span>Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP</span>
Republican House speaker Mike Johnson at the Capitol in Washington, on 29 February 2024.Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP

Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress managed to ward off a damaging federal government shutdown with a last-minute compromise reached this week – but remain deadlocked over approving further military assistance for Ukraine and Israel, and tightening immigration laws.

Congress was up against a Friday midnight deadline to reauthorize government spending or see a chunk of the federal departments cease much of their operations.

Related: Senate passes short-term funding bill to avert government shutdown

On Wednesday, top lawmakers including Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate majority leader, and Mike Johnson, the Republican House speaker, announced they “are in agreement that Congress must work in a bipartisan manner to fund our government”, and the following day lawmakers passed a short-term spending measure that Joe Biden signed on Friday.

But similar agreement has proven elusive when it comes to funding both the continuation of Ukraine’s grinding defense against Russia’s invasion and Israel’s assault on Gaza.

Last month, a bipartisan Senate agreement that would have paired the latest tranche of military aid with measures to limit the number of undocumented people and asylum seekers crossing into the country from Mexico was killed by Republicans – reportedly so Donald Trump, who is on the cusp of winning the Republican presidential nomination, could campaign on his own hardline approach to immigration reform.

The Senate then approved a $95bn bill that would authorize aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan without changing policy at the border, but Johnson has refused to put it to a vote in the House. Meanwhile, the government funding saga isn’t quite over. This week’s agreement pushed the funding deadlines for the two bills authorizing spending to 8 and 22 March. In their joint statement, the House and Senate leaders said lawmakers would vote on the 12 separate appropriations bills funding federal departments before these dates.

As Russia’s invasion enters its third year, enthusiasm for Kyiv’s cause has cooled among the American right. While it still has high-profile champions among the GOP, including the party’s top senator, Mitch McConnell, it is Democrats who have been loudest in sounding the alarm over the holdup of aid as Russia advances in the country.

“Every day that House Republicans refuse to hold a vote on the bipartisan National Security Supplemental, the consequences for Ukraine grow more severe,” Biden said on Thursday.

And though Biden’s administration faces intense criticism from some of his allies for his support for Israel – on Tuesday, a write-in campaign to protest his Middle East policy picked up 100,000 votes in vital swing state Michigan’s Democratic primary – the president insisted the aid would help both Israel’s fight against Hamas and the needs of Gaza’s civilians.

“This bill will help ensure that Israel can defend itself against Hamas and other threats. And it will provide critical humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people and those impacted by conflicts around the world. Because the truth is, the aid flowing into Gaza is nowhere near enough, and nowhere fast enough. Innocent lives are on the line,” he said.

Related: Biden calls for compromise while Trump goes full red meat at US-Mexico border

The biggest obstacle at this point appears to be Johnson, a rightwing lawmaker and Trump ally elevated to the speaker’s job in October after an unusual intraparty revolt cast Kevin McCarthy from the post. On Wednesday, a coalition of parliamentary leaders from European countries including France, Spain, Finland and Ukraine sent an open letter to Johnson asking him to allow a vote on Ukraine aid.

“While Speaker Johnson believes we must confront Putin, and is exploring steps to effectively do so, as he said at the White House, his immediate priority is funding America’s government and avoiding a shutdown,” the speaker’s office replied.

Centrist lawmakers in Congress’s lower chamber, which the GOP controls by a meager two seats, are reportedly planning to circulate a discharge petition, which, if signed by a majority of members, could force Johnson to put Ukraine aid up for a floor vote. Asked about that at a press conference, the Democratic House minority leader, Hakeem Jeffries, was not ready to endorse the idea.

“The most effective way to secure aid for our democratic allies, including, but not limited to, Ukraine, is to take the bipartisan bill that is pending before the House right now and put it on the floor,” Jeffries said, adding: “All legislative options remain on the table.”