House centrists unveil bipartisan border and aid deal for Ukraine and Israel

February 16, 2024
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WASHINGTON — After Speaker Mike Johnson rejected a Senate-passed $95 billion national security package, centrist House lawmakers on Friday unveiled their own bipartisan proposal that calls for new border policies coupled with critical military aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

“This is a really good piece of legislation. It’s pared-down. It’s airtight. There’s really not a whole lot of area that anyone can criticize on this,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., told reporters before releasing the text. “And it’s bipartisan. It’s the only bipartisan solution in the House.”

The $66.3 billion bipartisan package, titled the “Defending Borders, Defending Democracies Act,” has six initial co-sponsors, equally split between Democrats and Republicans. In addition to Fitzpatrick, the Republican backers are Reps. Don Bacon of Nebraska and Mike Lawler of New York. The Democrats are Reps. Jared Golden of Maine, Ed Case of Hawaii and Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez of Washington.

The release of the bill comes as the House leaves for a nearly two-week recess. Fitzpatrick is a co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of centrist lawmakers, but he said the legislation wasn’t a Problem Solvers product.

The $66 billion package for the Defense Department calls for $47.7 billion to help defend Ukraine from Russia; $10.4 billion to support the defense of Israel, including funding for the Iron Dome; $4.9 billion to shore up the defense of allies in the Indo-Pacific; and $2.4 billion to back U.S. Central Command operations, including the conflict in the Red Sea.

In addition to scaled-back military aid, the package borrows language from the House GOP’s tough border bill, known as H.R. 2, members said.

That includes bringing back the “Remain in Mexico” policy for one year, requiring some migrants, including asylum-seekers, to wait in Mexico while their claims are adjudicated. President Joe Biden ended the policy, which human rights groups said led migrants to face kidnappings and violence, when he took office, and the Supreme Court upheld the move.

But reinstating the border policy would require cooperation from Mexico, which it has rejected. Neither Fitzpatrick nor Bacon could explain how to resolve that dilemma.

“That’s something we’ll have to work out,” Bacon said. “I’m not on the foreign — I’m not an ambassador, so I have no idea how they’re going to respond. Our guys want something that makes a difference on the border.”

Fitzpatrick said it’ll be the Biden administration’s job to find a way to make Mexico comply.

“Well, that’s going to be part of what the administration’s role is in this,” he said. “We’re the legislative branch. The executive branch has to enforce the law.”

Fitzpatrick said he doesn’t have a commitment from Johnson to bring the bill to the floor. He said he’d do “whatever it takes” to advance the bill but downplayed the idea of a using a discharge petition — a tool to bypass leadership and force a vote — instead suggesting a “queen of the hill” rule in which many bills can get votes and the one with the largest number of votes is adopted.

“We have to talk to leadership or both parties and hopefully they’ll support it,” he said, adding that he doesn’t have a firm timeline.

“I think this is a good spot to be if you’re Republican,” said Bacon, a swing-district lawmaker who worked with Fitzpatrick to craft the bill. “You’re reducing the Senate bill by about 30%. So it’s fiscally more responsible. We know we got to do military aid to Ukraine or they’re going to fall, and it’ll cost us more if that happens. And we can deal with the border. So I just feel good about what we’re doing.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who supports Ukraine aid, said there won’t be a discharge petition to bring it to the floor.

“No. That’d be a nuclear option,” McCaul said. “Taking away the speaker’s power would backfire. A lot of Republicans that would vote for Ukraine would not if that happens.”

But Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who has threatened to force a vote to overthrow Johnson if he puts a Ukraine funding bill on the floor, said the moderates’ bill is all but dead.

“I’ll assure you: Ukraine aid is not coming to the floor,” she said Thursday in an interview.

Unlike the Senate package, which passed 70-29, the House bill doesn’t include any humanitarian aid for those affected by war in Gaza, Ukraine and other hot spots; the aid would be solely for military needs.

But Fitzpatrick said lawmakers are free to try to change the legislation through the amendment process.

“We can open up to amendments and everybody can get their votes and let the House do its will,” he said.



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