A memorial for Alexei Navalny
House Foreign Affairs Chair Michael McCaul raised concerns that Putin will “not stop with Ukraine.” Christophe Ena/AP

Navalny’s Death Could Force Mike Johnson’s Hand on Ukraine

Even before the news broke, members who support sending more aid to Ukraine wouldn’t rule out going around Republican leaders.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s reported death in a Russian prison may give GOP lawmakers even more resolve to go against their congressional leaders — and presidential candidate Donald Trump — in forcing a vote on Ukraine aid.

Republican lawmakers on Friday emphasized just how high the stakes are. And in several interviews on Thursday — even before news of Navalny’s death broke — members who support more military assistance to Ukraine wouldn’t rule out defying House Speaker Mike Johnson to get a vote on the matter.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul compared Putin’s intentions to Adolf Hitler’s and raised concerns that he will “not stop with Ukraine.” And Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said “history will not be kind to those in America who make apologies for Putin.”

It’s a stark divide in the Republican Party: While Trump is on the campaign trail and making comments supportive of Putin, and as far-right commentator Tucker Carlson dismisses criticism of Putin by claiming real leadership requires “killing people,” some Republicans are clear-eyed about the threat Russia poses to democracy. (Tucker later told the Daily Mail that what happened to Navalny was “barbaric”).

“I can be America First without being Only America,” said Rep. John Duarte, a Republican from California. “We’re safer and more prosperous when we have partners in freedom all over the world. When we don’t support our partners in freedom, the bad guys win.”

Would Duarte be willing to go around Johnson to bring a Ukraine aid bill to the floor? “I’ll look at it and see how things evolve,” he told NOTUS.

And Cuban American Rep. Carlos Gimenez of Florida told reporters he can’t understand his colleagues who oppose more assistance. “Russia propped up the Castro regime for decades. So I’m not really sympathetic to the Russian government and what they’re trying to do around the world,” he said. “They are an adversary.”

Ukraine, he added, “is keeping our second greatest adversary at bay with 5% of our defense budget.”

Gimenez declined to tell reporters what he would do if Johnson doesn’t allow consideration of more Ukraine aid, such as the $95 billion package passed by the Senate this week or a similar measure. “I’ll just say that I think it’s necessary that we fund Ukraine,” he said.

The House speaker dictates much of the chamber’s schedule, and Johnson says he opposes more aid unless it includes stringent border security policies (though he was a vocal opponent of the Senate-negotiated deal that included more stringent border security policies). Johnson on Friday said Navalny’s death, if confirmed, “is emblematic of Putin’s global pattern of silencing critics and eliminating opponents out of fear of dissent.”

As Congress debates “the best path forward to support Ukraine,” he said, international leaders “must be clear that Putin will be met with united opposition.”

If Johnson can’t reach an agreement with President Joe Biden to fund Ukraine’s defense, members have several parliamentary options to override the speaker, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican, pointed out.

“We’re going to get a floor vote,” he said of his own $66 billion bipartisan Ukraine aid proposal on Thursday. “We don’t seek permission to legislate. We do our jobs.”

Fitzpatrick said he will visit Ukraine on Monday and meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, where he plans to reassure him “things are alive and well in the House.”

“Have hope, because we’re going to find a way to get it done,” he added.

Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon, another Republican who helped draft Fitzpatrick’s bill, said he planned to talk with Johnson and pitch him on the bill. “It fulfills what he’s asked for,” he said, noting that it includes some provisions to keep migrants out of the United States as they await decisions on their asylum claims. Bacon, too, wouldn’t reject the idea of sidestepping Johnson, but he said he’d “rather work within the team.”

The House is in recess until Feb. 28, but lawmakers said they will continue discussing options over the break.

Several other Republicans are publicly supporting Fitzpatrick and Bacon’s bill, already surpassing the number Johnson can afford to lose in his incredibly slim majority.

Just a couple of determined Republicans could override his opposition to Ukraine aid if all Democrats support their effort. Unifying Democrats may be its own challenge, as some progressives won’t back more aid to Israel included in the Senate bill and the bipartisan House plan, and they may have reservations about Fitzpatrick’s border provisions.

It’s hard to imagine a stand-alone Ukraine aid bill failing to garner enough votes though — Rep. Andy Biggs, an Arizona Republican who opposes more assistance, predicted earlier this week that if the Senate bill came to the House floor, “it would pass.”

Haley Byrd Wilt is a reporter at NOTUS.