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After delays the House plans to hold separate votes on aid for Israel and others

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson is trying again to unite his divided conference on foreign aid. Iran's unprecedented direct attack on Israel over the weekend put more pressure on House Republicans to act after months of delays. Remember, the Senate in February passed a $95 billion aid package for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan. Now Johnson is pushing a proposal to hold separate votes on all three. For more on this, we've called Republican strategist Brendan Buck, whose resume includes key roles with two consecutive GOP speakers of the House. Good morning, Mr. Buck.

BRENDAN BUCK: Good morning. Thank you.

MARTIN: Thanks for coming. All right, so explain, what's the logic here? Is this a Hail Mary play, since the combined package wasn't going anywhere? Like, what's the upside?

BUCK: I wouldn't call it a Hail Mary. I think it's a relatively thoughtful approach. Look. The Senate bill has been sitting in the House for months, as you noted, and politics have gotten in the way the entire time. What Speaker Johnson is effectively doing is bringing up the Senate bill, but he has to do it in another way to satisfy his conference, who, with the rivalry between the House and Senate, have just said what the Senate did is not acceptable, but that's functionally what he's doing. He's just breaking it out into component parts with the belief that each of those component parts has the requisite support. And that's just another way of getting the ball across the finish line. It would still require the Senate to vote again, but I think there's relative confidence that that can happen.

There are still some unanswered questions. Democrats are going to be wanting to make sure that this bill includes humanitarian aid for Gaza. We haven't seen the actual bill text yet. And then there are some add-ons, a fourth bill that is going to include some things that are GOP priorities, and I think we'll need to be watching closely to make sure that the speaker doesn't get too greedy and ask for some things that maybe Democrats aren't OK with because this is going to have to be a bipartisan exercise.

MARTIN: Is there any downside to this?

BUCK: Sure. The speaker still faces a real threat from conservatives. Marjorie Taylor Greene, as we all know, has threatened to remove the speaker with a motion to vacate. Her real red line has been any funding for Ukraine. I think this is what this has been all about the entire time. So there's a very real likelihood that she comes after him after they execute this plan. Whether or not that actually costs him his job, I think, is a real open question.

MARTIN: Yeah, that was going to be my question.

BUCK: It sounds like Democrats would be there to support him.

MARTIN: Yeah, that was going to be my question. Is that a real threat at this juncture?

BUCK: I think that he would survive the vote. I think you'd have very few Republicans voting to oust him, and I think Democrats would probably be there to back him. The only problem then is you are a Republican speaker who has Democrats to thank for your job. And politically, within the conference, that's a very tough place to be if you're a Republican speaker. We may already be in that situation, where we have to have bipartisan governance. Every major thing that this Congress has done has required Democrats to bail out the majority. So that may not really be changing much, but it will certainly be something that Marjorie Taylor Greene and other conservatives will hold around Speaker Johnson's neck the rest of this Congress.

MARTIN: You know, former President Donald Trump, who obviously remains very influential with the conference, has suggested that the aid for Ukraine could come in the form of a loan. Now, setting aside the details of how that might work - I don't know - but is that something that House Republicans could support or would support?

BUCK: So that is going to be, I believe, part of the fourth bill that they are going to bring up. Not all of it will be in the form of a loan, but some of it will be in the form of a loan. And that is Johnson, I think, trying to at least put a fig leaf over what they're doing and say, look. We're including part of the Trump plan. Mike Johnson, meeting with Donald Trump down at Mar-a-Lago this past week, had a very good day for him. I was very worried that Donald Trump was going to come out and undercut Johnson's efforts to move Ukraine aid, but he didn't. He left himself open to that idea. We need to keep a close eye on what Donald Trump says this week about this plan. That could really spell trouble for him if he comes out against it. But I think this was Johnson trying to give a nod to Trump supporters, saying, we're including one of his ideas in this package, even if it's just a small portion of it.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, it sounds to me like you think this plan has a chance of making it out of Congress. Does this - if that happens, even in the way that you describe, it needs Democratic votes. Does this tell us something about a possible way forward and moving forward on other things of importance to the country?

BUCK: Absolutely. This is going to have to be a bipartisan Congress every step of the way. The House majority is two votes. It's about to be one vote. And that's the smallest majority we've had in a very long time. And we've shown that we can do things. The debt limit increase, the government funding bill that was passed recently were all done in a bipartisan way, and it shows that that's possible. Politics still get in the way. It's not popular for a Republican speaker to be working with Democrats. But that's the reality that we face. And I'm glad the speaker has realized that's the reality and is finally moving forward.

MARTIN: That is Brendan Buck. He's a Republican strategist with the firm Seven Letter. He's advised former Republican House speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner. Mr. Buck, thanks so much for sharing this expertise with us.

BUCK: Yeah, I appreciate the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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