Republicans erupt into open warfare over Ukraine aid package vote

Republican divisions over military support for Ukraine were long simmering. Now, before Saturday’s extraordinary vote in Congress on a foreign aid package, they have erupted into open warfare – a conflict that the vote itself is unlikely to contain.

Related: US House pushes ahead with $95bn foreign aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan

Mike Johnson, the speaker of the House of Representatives, triggered an all-out split in his own party’s ranks last week by finally agreeing, after months of stalling, to a floor vote on the $95bn foreign aid programme. Passed by the Senate in February, it contained about $60bn for Ukraine, $14bn for Israel, and a smaller amount for Taiwan and other Pacific allies.

Johnson’s decision to finally bring the package to a vote made a highly symbolic break with the GOP’s far right, the people who engineered his elevation to the speaker’s chair last October after toppling his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy. These Republican rightwingers – reflecting the affinity of their political idol, the former president Donald Trump, for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin – have grown openly hostile to Ukraine’s cause.

Speaking from the Capitol on Thursday, Johnson made no apologies for antagonising them, telling C-SPAN that providing aid to Ukraine was “critically important” and “the right thing” despite the potential power of his opponents to bring him down in yet another internal party coup.

“I really believe the intel and the briefings that we’ve gotten,” Johnson said. “I believe that Xi and Vladimir Putin and Iran really are an axis of evil. I think they are in coordination on this. I think that Vladimir Putin would continue to march through Europe.

“I am going to allow an opportunity for every single member of the House to vote their conscience and their will,” he said, adding: “I’m willing to take a personal risk for that, because we have to do the right thing. And history will judge us.”

The backlash was fierce. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the outspoken Georgia representative, immediately filed a resolution demanding Johnson’s removal, called the bill a “sham”.

“I don’t care if the speaker’s office becomes a revolving door,” Taylor Greene told Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser, on his War Room channel. “The days are over of the old Republican party that wants to fund foreign wars and murder people in foreign lands while they stab the American people in their face and refuse to protect Americans and fix our problems.”

Branded “Moscow Marjorie” by former Republican representative Ken Buck, who said she gets her talking points from the Kremlin, Taylor Greene went further by accusing Ukraine of waging “a war against Christianity”.

“The Ukrainian government is attacking Christians, the Ukrainian government is executing priests,” she said. “Russia is not doing that. They’re not attacking Christianity.” (In fact, according to figures from the Institute for Religious Freedom, a Ukrainian group, at least 630 religious sites had been damaged or looted in Russia’s invasion by December last year.)

Taylor Greene’s move to oust Johnson was supported by the Kentucky representative Thomas Massie, who also backed an ultimately successful attempt to remove a previous Republican speaker, John Boehner, nearly a decade ago.

Other Republican rightwingers are unhappy, too, though they have so far stopped short of moving to topple the speaker. That might be because Trump, the party’s presumptive nominee for president who is currently on trial on fraud charges relating to paying hush money to keep American voters from learning about his alleged affair with an adult film star, has backed Johnson.

So have all four Republican chairs of the key House committees – foreign affairs, intelligence, armed services and appropriations – a position driven by the sheer urgency of Ukraine’s predicament.

More than two years into the war, Ukraine has a catalogue of absolutely critical military requirements, including artillery shells, air defence missiles and deep-strike rockets.

Johnson has tried to dilute the internal opposition by unbundling the aid package into four separate bills, with each to be voted on individually – apparently in the hope that the chance to vote against the bits they dislike (such as Ukraine) while backing causes more palatable to them (such as Israel) will placate the implacable.

Although the Republicans’ house majority is now whittled down to two, Democrats – who mostly back funding Ukraine’s defense against the Russian invasion – have pledged to support Johnson’s bills. That could mean Ukraine would finally get the US assistance it has so fervently hoped for: roughly $60bn in assistance (much of which would be to replenish weapons stocks provided by the US), including $10bn to be given in the form of a loan, a concept Trump has apparently endorsed.

Predictably, Democrats are gloating. Jared Moskowitz, a Democratic representative from Florida, moved an amendment to the Ukraine bill calling for Taylor Greene’s office in the Cannon building to be renamed the Neville Chamberlain room – in homage to the pre-second world war British prime minister notorious for appeasing Hitler – and asking she be appointed “Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to the US”.

While Saturday’s vote may settle the Ukraine issue for now, Republican divisions will probably rumble on, according to Kyle Kondik of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

“The GOP split on Ukraine would remain, but the need for action (or inaction) in the short term would be solved,” he said.

“Johnson may be well-positioned to survive as speaker because Democrats may provide him some votes. But the GOP conference is so divided (and so small in its majority) that I’m sure something else will come along to cause more turbulence.”

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