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House Republicans tee up vote for $61 bn in Ukraine aid

US Speaker of the House Mike Johnson says he will hold a long-delayed vote Saturday on US military aid to Ukraine and Israel
— Washington (AFP)

The Republican leader of the US House of Representatives on Wednesday announced a weekend vote on massive new military aid including some $61 billion in long-delayed support for Ukraine, as well as billions for Israel and Taiwan.

The vote -- set for Saturday -- could finally get much-needed help to outgunned Ukrainian forces as they battle Russian invaders, and President Joe Biden swiftly called for Congress to pass the package.

If it does, "I will sign this into law immediately to send a message to the world: We stand with our friends, and we won't let Iran or Russia succeed," he said in a White House statement.

But the vote also sets up a showdown with House Speaker Mike Johnson's own far-right wing, which for months has been steered by Republican White House hopeful Donald Trump into blocking aid to Kyiv.

Along with the $61 billion for Ukraine, the bills would allocate more than $26 billion for Israel as it wages war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip and squares up against regional foe Iran and its proxies.

That includes $9.2 billion in humanitarian aid for civilian-packed Gaza, which had been a key requirement for Democrats.

The package also provides $8 billion for self-ruled Taiwan, which China sees as part of its territory and has vowed to retake -- by force if necessary.

For months, Johnson has faced huge pressure from the White House and much of Congress to allow the lower house to vote on aid to Ukraine and Israel that was already approved in the Senate.

Johnson had refused to let that $95 billion package through, as Republicans wrangled over Biden's immigration policies.

Instead the speaker is pushing this separate package -- which the Pentagon also urged be passed "as quickly as possible," warning it has already seen a "shift" in Ukraine's ability to hold off Russian forces.

"This is a very important message we're going to send to the world this week, and I'm anxious to get it done," said Johnson.

"To put it bluntly, I would rather send bullets to Ukraine than American boys."

- 'Abject surrender' -

It remains unclear if Johnson's aid bills will pass the House or the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The speaker's majority is razor-thin, and he is facing a potential Republican revolt over his complex plan, with right-wing congressman Matt Gaetz denouncing it as "abject surrender" on CNN.

Ukrainian rescuers clear the rubble of a destroyed building following a missile attack in Chernigiv on April 17, 2024

Conservatives have complained over the billions in aid already spent since the fighting began in February 2022.

They also insist the immigration crisis at the US southern border must be tackled first, despite largely rejecting the February package which included some of the tightest border restrictions in years.

Without the near-total backing of his party, Johnson would be left to rely on votes from Democrats to pass the aid package, with some such as Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut voicing her support.

Johnson said he will not bow to pressure to step down as House speaker.

- Investing in America -

Johnson announced the vote would be held Saturday shortly after Biden described Ukraine and Israel as two US allies desperate for help.

They both "depend on American assistance, including weaponry, to do it. And this is a pivotal moment," Biden wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Biden argued that the aid is needed to help Ukraine, which is running out of ammunition, and Israel in the wake of last weekend's mass Iranian drone attack.

US President Joe Biden says an 'extreme' faction of Republicans is holding up war aid to two US allies

But he said the assistance is just as important for US security.

"Mr Putin wants to subjugate the people of Ukraine and absorb their nation into a new Russian empire. The government of Iran wants to destroy Israel forever -- wiping the world's only Jewish state off the map," Biden wrote.

"America must never accept either outcome -- not only because we stand up for our friends, but because our security is on the line, too."

Biden said the money would not be "blank checks."

The weaponry for Ukraine would be built in US factories, he said, writing: "We'd help our friends while helping ourselves."

He also sought to allay concerns within his own Democratic Party, where growing numbers of members oppose arming Israel during its devastating war against Hamas.