GOP recess becomes sharp weapon for White House

The White House is using the House recess as a political weapon to batter Republicans for going on vacation without passing aid for Ukraine or funding the government.

Global events have added a sharpness to the attacks — and perhaps some vulnerability for House Republicans.

Immediately after the House left the Capitol without taking up a Senate-approved bill that would provide $60 billion to Ukraine, Russian dissident Alexei Navalny died in prison.

The White House has blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for Navalny’s death and pointed to the lack of action from Congress as one reason the the Kremlin leader is growing more confident with the U.S. receding from Ukraine and Europe.

Not long after the shocking news about Navalny’s death in prison, Russia earned a significant victory in the battle for Ukraine by taking the city of Avdiivka. It was Russia’s first meaningful battleground victory over Ukraine in nearly a year, and a warning sign for Ukrainian forces running low on arms.

Navalny’s death and the Russian victory have led Biden to go further on offense against the House GOP and his likely opponent in November, former President Trump.

“They’re making a big mistake by not responding,” Biden told reporters Monday, speaking of the GOP House. “The way they’re walking away from the threat of Russia, they way they’re walking away from NATO. The way they’re walking away from meeting our obligations. It’s just shocking. I mean, they’re wild. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

President Biden
President Biden

President Biden answers a reporter’s question before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024. Biden will participate in four campaign receptions in California over the next three days. (Allison Robbert)

It was the third time in four days Biden took aim at House Republicans for leaving town without taking action to aid Ukraine.

“It’s about time they step up — don’t you think? — instead of going on a two-week vacation.  Two weeks they’re walking away. Two weeks. What are they thinking? My God, this is bizarre,” Biden said Friday.

Biden on Saturday called it “absurd” and “unethical” to abandon Ukraine as it nears the two-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion.

House GOP leadership canceled votes for Friday, and the House will return to Washington on Feb. 28 after the President’s Day recess.

White House communications director Ben LaBolt in a statement Tuesday highlighted Biden’s support for a Senate border security proposal and his unwavering support for Ukraine in contrast with the inaction of House Republicans.

“Instead of matching President Biden’s leadership on these urgent priorities they claim to share, House Republicans are on Day 5 of an early, undeserved vacation while their inaction does escalating damage to our national security,” LaBolt said. “Russia just saw its most significant gains in Ukraine in nearly a year because Ukraine is running low on supplies and Congress has failed to pass critically needed support.”

“Speaker Johnson and House Republicans must act – time is of the essence,” he added.

Johnson on Friday issued a statement saying Putin was “likely directly responsible” for Navalny’s death, but he did not give any indication the incident had immediately changed his calculus on bringing Ukraine aid to the floor for a vote.

“In the coming days … we must be clear that Putin will be met with united opposition,” Johnson said. “As Congress debates the best path forward to support Ukraine, the United States, and our partners, must be using every means available to cut off Putin’s ability to fund his unprovoked war in Ukraine and aggression against the Baltic states.”

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The White House has for weeks sought to argue congressional Republicans are taking orders from Trump, who urged lawmakers to oppose a bipartisan border security bill and who has been skeptical of aiding Ukraine.

Now, the House GOP’s inaction on Ukraine coincides with comments from Trump that he would not protect NATO allies from a Russian attack if they had not contributed enough money toward defense spending.

“The idea we need anything more to get the Ukraine aid, I mean, this is — in light of a former president’s statement saying Russia, if they haven’t paid their dues to us, ‘Go get them.’ Come on. What are these guys doing? What are they doing?” Biden said Friday.

The more aggressive use of the bully pulpit against Trump and the House GOP comes as polls show Biden in a neck and neck race with the former president. The polls, some of which show Trump with a lead, have added to Democratic nerves about holding on to the White House in November.

The Biden campaign, matching the more aggressive attacks from the White House, on Friday dropped an ad attacking Trump over his NATO comments, arguing he wants to walk away from NATO.

The ad will run through Super Tuesday next month and target voters in the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which the campaign noted is home to more than 2.5 million Americans who identify as Polish, Finnish, Norwegian, Lithuanian, Latvian, or Estonian — all NATO countries that border Russia.

Democrats see the effort as an attempt to put more pressure on the GOP over Ukraine, but also to win points in the fall.

“I think what the Democratic party at large and the Joe Biden campaign … is going to do is make the case directly to voters that by letting Vladimir Putin ‘do whatever the hell he wants,’ we are less safe at home and undermining our national and global security,” a national Democrat told The Hill.

Biden’s handling of the war in Ukraine has been a rare bright spot for him in polls.

A Quinnipiac University poll published Jan. 31 found 47 percent of voters approve of Biden’s response to the Russian invasion, compared with 46 percent who disapprove. Those figures helped buoy his overall approval on foreign policy, which sat at 37 percent.

Johnson, who is working with an extremely narrow margin in the House, initially opposed a bipartisan border security proposal, aligning with Trump, who said it was a political loser for Republicans.

The Speaker has since rejected the national security supplemental passed with an overwhelming majority in the Senate because he said it did not include strong border provisions.

The White House has blasted Johnson for his changing approach on the issue and unwillingness to even bring Ukraine aid up for a vote, which officials believe would pass on a bipartisan basis. Biden on Monday signaled he could be open to a sit-down with Johnson as the White House views the situation as increasingly urgent.

“Sure, I’d be happy to meet with him if he has anything to say,” Biden said.

Raj Shah, spokesperson for Johnson, said the president’s response is overdue.

“We welcome the President’s reversal and openness to meeting with Speaker Johnson about the best path forward for securing the nation. It’s long overdue. We look forward to hearing from the White House when he’ll be available for a one-on-one meeting that the Speaker has requested for weeks,” Shah said.

Democratic strategist Michael Starr Hopkins said “actions speak louder than words” and that House Republicans have failed to stand firm against Russia’s aggression.

“Navalny’s death should have been a clarion call to action, a somber reminder of the stakes at play, yet it seems the only call being answered is one to leisure. It’s a glaring exhibition of placing politics over principle, a move so brazenly detached from the urgency of global leadership that it would be comedic, if it weren’t so tragically inept,” he said.

In addition to Ukraine’s urgent needs, there is a looming government shutdown deadline lawmakers must contend with. Lawmakers in January struck a deal to punt the deadline to March 1 for four appropriations bills and to March 8 for eight others.

“We have two government shutdowns looming on March 1st, and I think March 8th, and the president is right to call Republicans back to work and say, ‘Let’s finish the job,’” longtime Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said Sunday on “This Week.”

Michael Ricci, former communications aide to Speakers John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), said the House GOP not passing Ukraine aid before recess isn’t surprising and called the caucus a campaign arm for Trump.

“As shocking as Navalny’s death is, this is the same Congress that couldn’t pass a straightforward aid package for Israel after Israel was attacked. Events can overtake a lot of things, but the unrest among House Republicans is so institutionally paralyzing that recesses are essentially reprieves at this point,” he said.

To combat the White House’s attacks during recess, House leadership could convene conference calls and put out Dear Colleague letters. But, Ricci argued, the chaos could continue instead.

“To do that, of course, they need some kind of a message and a direction, and hopefully the hiatus helps them get there,” said Ricci, a partner at Seven Letter. “The reality is, House Republicans are increasingly becoming a campaign arm for Trump — who wants all chaos and no action — and that will only increase in the weeks ahead.”

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