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As Ukraine aid languishes, 15 House members work on end run to approve funds

Ukraine vows to keep fighting Russia
Ukraine vows to keep fighting Russia amid stalled U.S. aid effort 03:37

Standing next to the roaring fireplace in the lobby off the House floor, GOP Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska paused and then said of the effort to pass Ukraine funding in the House, "I think we're playing a pretty good game of chess here."   

But it's unclear who makes the next move.

Bacon and 14 House colleagues are attempting an unorthodox, novel and — critics say — a long-shot effort to force a vote to provide emergency financial aid to Ukraine. The bipartisan group of House members have signed a formal "discharge petition" to help provide billions of dollars in aid for war-torn Ukraine, where money and munitions are in dwindling supply.  

The discharge petition, organized by suburban Philadelphia Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, is the latest version of a rarely successful parliamentary technique to force a House vote on a measure that is opposed or otherwise blocked by House leadership. 

The petition needs 218 votes to induce a floor vote. Though only 15 signatures have been gathered so far, including Fitzpatrick's, supporters are bullish on its prospects. Speaking with CBS News, Fitzpatrick predicted a "dam break" that will lead to a wave of support and signatures.

Fitzpatrick told CBS News, "It's the best option available right now. Time is of the essence.  Ukraine is destitute right now." Fitzpatrick said if party leaders give his petition their blessing, a wave of signatures would build in short order.

"I'm having constant conversations with people on both sides," Fitzpatrick said.

Democrats have been trying to get their own discharge petition to the floor, one that would force a vote on the Senate national security bill, which would provide funding for Israel and Taiwan, as well as Ukraine, but Johnson will not allow a vote on it, citing the absence of language to strengthen security at the U.S.-Mexico border.

As dysfunction grips the House this year, most contentious votes must be passed outside of traditional rules and protocols. To circumvent the hurdles and floor procedures that have stymied the House, Republican leaders have passed major legislation under what's known as a suspension of the rules, that is, by bypassing normal systems. This requires a supermajority of nearly 290 votes — support from members of both parties — to approve legislation.

The discharge petition plan drafted by Fitzpatrick would require only 218 votes to approve the Ukraine money, which supporters said would dramatically improve the odds of passage. "If we do it through this (type) of order, it won't pass," Bacon said of a vote under suspension of the rules. "Now, we'll need just 218 votes."

The petition, if it garners 218 signatures, could also be used as leverage to expedite sluggish negotiations among Congressional leaders. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana said House GOP leaders have had ongoing discussions about how to provide foreign aid to Ukraine, but didn't specify a deadline or date for consideration. Johnson said, "There's a number of avenues that we've been looking at to address that. And I'm not going to say today what that is."  

One idea that has gained steam among House Republicans is sending Ukraine aid in the form of a loan. Former President Donald Trump suggested the idea in a Truth Social post in February, and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he discussed the idea of a "no-interest, waivable loan" with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy at a recent meeting.

Speaker Johnson seemed open to the idea of a loan on Wednesday, telling reporters that it was "a commonsense suggestion" that made sense to "a lot of people." But he noted, "The devil is always in the details and the legislative text."

The House is expected to leave Washington for a two-week district work period beginning this weekend. At a press conference Wednesday, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell argued the House should move with urgency and swiftly approve a Senate-passed bill that would provide tens of billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine.

Some of the 15 signatories to the House discharge petition expressed confidence to CBS News that a vote on Ukraine financial aid would be certain to pass in the House, once a vote is permitted. Rep. Jenn Kiggans, a first-term Republican who represents a large Navy community in Southeast Virginia, told CBS News she is hoping the petition speeds up the debate and the decision on Ukraine. Kiggans said, "It's the only mechanism I have right now. I'm hopeful that our leadership is going to listen."

"We are the world's superpower," Kiggans said. "We need to be there for our friends." 

The effort won a new signature Wednesday, from GOP Rep. Brandon Williams, who represents a swing district in central New York.  

Fitzpatrick told CBS News his discharge petition is built for flexibility. The specifics of the aid package and the proposal could be broadened before it goes to the House floor for a vote, potentially expanding to include further border security provisions or aid to the Middle East. "I just have a tremendous sense of urgency, and I wish my colleagues would join me."

Bacon, who compared the strategy to a chess maneuver, said House leadership can move the legislative pieces too.   

"They can revise our bill and do what they need to do," Bacon told CBS News.   

Ellis Kim contributed to this report.

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