In December 2023, US President Joe Biden called on Congress to pass an aid package containing, among other items, approximately $60 billion in funding for Ukraine, warning against inaction regarding Russia’s invasion. Despite Biden’s plea, many Republicans in the House and Senate cringed at more spending, arguing that further funding should be paired with clamping down on border security. Fairly receptive to this idea, Democratic and Republican senators have worked on a deal to appease both parties, including a border crackdown and releasing further funds to Ukraine.
However, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson declared after a recent White House meeting that he would not act on a deal even if it passed the Senate. This remains true even as many of his fellow Republicans, particularly in the Senate, call the prospects of this deal a potentially fleeting but “unique moment in time.” While Johnson blamed the lack of stringent measures as his reasoning for pre-emptively rejecting the compromise, the real reasons why Congress seems unlikely to pass a deal on Ukraine aid and immigration reform are the exact reasons why very little has gotten done or likely will get done, in the rest of this session of Congress. Those reasons are the nature of the Republican House majority and the rising partisanship of the election year.
Playing the Numbers Game
Indeed, part of the difficulty in Congress is that the House majority barely has the numbers to constitute a majority. Winning only 222 seats in the 2022 midterm elections, little over half of the total 435 seats in the House, Republicans have since seen their numbers dwindle through various factors ranging from medical absences and travel delays to more substantial factors like George Santos’s expulsion and Kevin McCarthy’s retirement, which have brought Johnson’s majority close to the bare minimum.
Johnson’s difficulties are exacerbated by internal divisions amongst his party. Just earlier this year, Johnson was forced to rely primarily on Democratic votes to pass a crucial bill to keep the government funded after conservative hardliners revolted, a scenario that has replayed four times since January 2023. Indeed, the speaker before Johnson was, in a historic first, ousted by some of those same hardliners as punishment for working with Democrats to pass similar spending bills, an ouster that plunged the House into nearly a month-long paralysis. Although these hardliners have yet to punish Johnson by ousting him, he has drawn their ire, and members like Marjorie Taylor Greene have threatened to oust him if he were to compromise on immigration as he did with spending deals. On the other end of the spectrum are Republicans in competitive districts, who also sometimes create problems for the majority, particularly when the hardliners drift too far to the right.
Therefore, the overall picture presents the current Republican House majority as incredibly difficult to navigate because of its small size and internal divisions. Matthew Green, a professor of politics at Catholic University, summarizes that small majorities give internal factions substantial power to create headaches for party leadership, making the majority dysfunctional as internal disputes paralyze the majority’s ability to move legislation along party lines.
Election Year Partisanship
The difficulties inherent in this Republican House majority are compounded by the fact that 2024 is a major election year in the United States. Americans will go to the polls this November to vote for the presidency, a third of the Senate, and the entirety of the House.
The elections at every level, particularly the presidency and the House races, will likely be very close. The consequences of how competitive this year’s elections are mean that both sides actively seek advantages. The proposed changes to immigration in exchange for Ukraine aid, and indeed any other productive pieces of legislation, seem threatened by this election-year dynamic.
For instance, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump insulted Senate Republicans, calling them “stupid,” for giving Biden a chance for a win on immigration and foreign policy that could bolster his chances of re-election in November. House Republicans seem to be echoing similar sentiments, positioning themselves to refuse any deal, some like Rep. Troy Niehls, who actively wants to deny Biden and the Democrats a win, others so that they can campaign on immigration as a potent attack against them.
The combination of these factors have contributed to, and likely will continue to contribute to, the inactivity of the 118th Congress. As Mike Johnson continues to try and navigate the tricky inner workings of an uncooperative majority while attempting to keep his position, the extreme zero-sum partisanship of the election year will continue to heat up, in a combination that will likely result in little substantive legislation being passed, which includes the deal currently formulating in the Senate.
Edited by Killian Magdelaine
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Featured image on Flickr.