Why natural gas exports may not solve the House GOP’s Ukraine aid problems

Speaker Mike Johnson has hit on a new ingredient in his search for a winning formula to muscle long-stalled foreign aid through the House — a task that will require winning over enough fellow Republicans who are skeptical or even against more help for Ukraine.

Johnson’s latest idea: Linking any foreign aid deal to rolling back President Joe Biden’s pause on natural gas exports. If Republicans could claim they’d extracted a concession that undercuts Biden’s climate agenda, the thinking goes, they’d have a rare unifying message heading into the election. Boosting U.S. natural gas exports would also allow the GOP to argue it had achieved direct progress on countering Russia.

Even so, it’s already looking like Johnson won’t make much headway with the loudest corners of his right flank with the gas exports pitch. GOP sources we chatted with acknowledged that getting a win on natural gas would help sweeten the pot — after all, House Republicans passed legislation in February that would have ended Biden’s export pause. But Johnson’s hard-line conservatives are likely to look for more from him to quell their anger over a possible Ukraine vote.

To be clear, no policy details are locked in yet for the House GOP’s Ukraine plan, as Johnson tries to figure out what can gel. But we’ve heard about three problems with the LNG idea so far: 

Gas exports are not a big enough prize to offset having to vote for Ukraine aid for those who are deeply opposed or view it as toxic to the base. A certain level of opposition will be baked into the chaos-driven House GOP conference, but it’s possible that any energy rollback would fail to get traction.
That’s because border security remains the must-tackle issue for many on Johnson’s right, despite their distaste for the Senate’s bipartisan attempt to do just that earlier this year.
To some Republicans, choosing gas exports as a concession looks too much like a personal win for Johnson even though it’s got a direct link to combating Russia, given the boost to energy producers in his home state of Louisiana, versus a genuine win for House Republicans. (Louisiana would definitely benefit; so would other states like Texas and Georgia, among others.) 

“The $1.9-trillion deficit that just passed wasn’t nearly big enough. To spend more, maybe we could secure some other borders instead of our own? Billions for Ukraine, billions for Israel, billions for Taiwan. When Congress gets back next week maybe try harder to bankrupt America faster,” Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) quipped on X Monday.

It’s not just LNG, of course. Johnson is eyeing other items to make Ukraine aid somewhat more palatable to his members — though, we reiterate, none of this is locked in. They include potentially making part of any new Ukraine aid a “loan” — details are still being worked out, but Republicans have discussed conditions on how additional humanitarian aid is structured, in particular.

Unfortunately, there’s already GOP pushback on that front, too. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), for one, suggested that Johnson’s discussions about restructuring Ukraine money doesn’t address the underlying reticence on his right flank.

“No matter the smoke and mirrors for Ukraine funding — it will perpetuate war with no defined mission and will abandon leverage to secure the border of the United States, unless it doesn’t,” Roy said.

Johnson doesn’t need unity among House Republicans to get Ukraine aid passed, as long as he gets a healthy amount of Democratic buy-in. Trying to unravel elements of Biden’s energy plan puts that Democratic support at risk.

But so far, Democratic leaders aren’t killing the idea. A spokesperson for House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Johnson’s broader proposal.

Only nine House Democrats voted for a bill in February that would have overridden Biden and un-paused natural gas exports. Even if Johnson goes narrower with language he tries to add to the foreign aid package, he’ll definitely lose climate hawks who would ordinarily be staunch supporters of Ukraine, think Reps. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) and Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who’ve made addressing climate change a focus of their tenures in Washington.

Huffman called the potential inclusion of LNG provisions “absurd” in an interview with POLITICO.

“The only thing it really shows is that Mike Johnson cares a lot more about LNG than he does Ukraine,” the California Democrat said, adding of Johnson: “He’s been flailing for some time now. … It’s certainly not something that takes us closer to a solution.”

That’s how Casten sees the situation as well. Though members from both parties wondered Monday if Johnson’s idea was fully baked or if he was just testing the waters.

“Why would you even put this in there? You’re not doing it to gain Democrats. Maybe you’re doing it because you’re afraid of Marjorie Taylor Greene and, if that’s the case, get the hell out of the leadership role,” Casten said in a Monday interview.

Indeed, the volume of GOP complaints he gets on Ukraine aid could have ramifications for another fight Johnson is navigating — the threatened ouster vote that the Georgia firebrand Greene teed up last month.

Johnson’s allies are largely downplaying Greene, but he can’t afford to dismiss her gambit given his shrinking majority. While the two have exchanged texts over the break and are expected to speak early next week, Greene blasted Johnson’s latest Ukraine aid comments on Monday.

Importantly, Johnson flirted with the natural gas exports idea during a Fox News interview on Sunday, but he’s been light enough on the specifics of his Ukraine strategy that he may yet look at another aspect of Biden’s energy agenda. The same goes for any conditions on the Ukraine funds.

Asked for additional details on Monday, Johnson’s office referred back to his Fox News interview.