WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden met with new House Speaker Mike Johnson and Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries at the White House on Thursday to discuss his request for nearly $106 billion for Israel, Ukraine and other national security needs.
Johnson, a staunch conservative allied with Donald Trump, has shown little interest in providing additional money from Congress to support Ukraine in its war against Russia.
Later, the new Republican speaker insisted Congress is “not going to abandon” Ukraine.
Instead, Johnson said House Republicans would first bring a separate bill to provide $14.5 billion in aid to Israel, but they need more information about the Biden administration’s Ukraine strategy.
“We can’t allow Vladimir Putin to prevail in Ukraine because I don’t believe it would stop there,” Johnson said on Fox News’ “Hannity,” referring to the Russian president. But he said, “We must stand with our important ally in the Middle East and that’s Israel.”
The new Republican leader who swept into office nearly a month after the ouster of Rep. Kevin McCarthy as speaker had a busy first full day in office, having inherited many of the same political problems that tormented past GOP leaders and challenged their tenure as speaker.
In the morning, Johnson said “prayer is appropriate” as a response to the mass shootings in Maine.
Johnson, an evangelical Christian from Louisiana, declined to take questions, including about the possibility of any gun violence legislation from Congress.
“Prayer is appropriate at a time like this, that the evil can end and the senseless violence can stop,” he said.
The House convened with a bustle of activity, making up for lost time during the weeks of chaos since McCarthy’s ouster as speaker. But the initial goodwill toward Johnson blurs the political fault lines challenging his ability to lead the GOP majority in the face of daunting issues ahead.
By Nov. 17, the Congress must fund the government again or risk a federal shutdown. Biden wants nearly $106 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Israel and Ukraine. And Republicans are eager to resume their impeachment inquiry into Biden over his son Hunter’s business dealings.
“Enough of the chaos, enough of the dysfunction,” said Jeffries, D-N.Y., adding it was time for Congress to get back to business.
Jeffries said Democrats were “heartbroken” over the latest shootings and stand with the people of Maine in every way possible, including discussing how Congress can address gun violence.
Johnson said he and Biden met together for more than 15 minutes before the other party arrived.
“It was a productive meeting,” Johnson told reporters back at the Capitol. “I enjoyed my visit with the president.”
Biden met with Johnson and Jeffries before the House leaders joined a classified briefing with other congressional lawmakers on the assistance package, according to a White House official.
The briefing in the Situation Room for Johnson and other House leaders on the emergency funding request was the first time the new speaker, who opposes the aid to Ukraine, was getting a close airing from White House officials about Biden’s case for the money. The White House has conducted similar briefings in recent weeks.
Biden had called Johnson to congratulate him after his election Wednesday and said it was “time for all of us to act responsibly” to fund the government and provide that foreign aid. “We need to move swiftly,” the president said in a statement.
Johnson, 51, swept through on the first ballot with support from all Republicans anxious to put weeks of tumult behind and get on with the business of governing. He was quickly sworn as speaker and is now second in line to the presidency, after the vice president.
While not the Republicans’ top choice, Johnson had few foes and an important backer in Donald Trump.
At the Capitol on Thursday, Johnson sat down with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who told reporters afterward that he had a “very good” meeting with the new speaker.
Johnson met later with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who said on social media they had a “great meeting.” He has also heard from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who told the new speaker in a Wednesday call that a bipartisan agreement with Democrats is the only way to avoid a shutdown.
In winning the gavel, Johnson, who has been in the House for less than a decade, drew together fellow Republicans through his faith, conservative roots and Trump’s nod after more seasoned leaders had failed.
“I’m a Bible-believing Christian,” Johnson told Fox’s Sean Hannity.
The speaker said when he’s asked his views on the issues, he advises: “Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it, that’s my worldview. That’s what I believe.”
Democrats said Johnson, a lawyer specializing in constitutional issues, was an extreme conservative, a strict opponent of abortion access and an architect of Trump’s legal effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election he lost to Democrat Biden.
After Johnson’s election, lawmakers approved a resolution Wednesday saying the House “stands with Israel” and “condemns Hamas’ brutal war.” They next turned to a stalled government funding bill.
Rather than take a scheduled work period at home, Republicans rearranged the House calendar to return to Washington next week and keep pushing through the various government funding bills before the Nov. 17 deadline.
In a letter to colleagues, Johnson outlined priorities that include providing a short-term funding bill, into next year, to prevent a November shutdown — almost the same move that led to McCarthy’s ouster.
“Speaker Johnson has been very clear that we’ve got to secure America’s border, we want to support Israel,” said Majority Leader Steve Scalise, who conferred with Johnson ahead of the White House meeting. “But all of the other items that the President is talking about run secondary.”
Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Johnson is thoughtful and smart, and understands that aid for Ukraine is a national security issue, despite opposition from other Republicans in their majority.
“And what I saw in the Situation Room was I thought he was very open to the idea,” said McCaul.
To avoid a shutdown, Johnson will need to balance far-right demands with the realities of keeping the government functioning. Most Republicans voted against the budget deal McCarthy, R-Calif., struck with Biden earlier this year, demanding steeper spending cuts.
Similar Republican infighting has chased three other GOP speakers to early departures. The difference now is that Republican rules allow any single lawmaker to force a vote to remove the speaker from office.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in New York, Darlene Superville and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.