Political pressure builds on House Speaker Johnson as Congress returns

Congress returns Monday after a two-week break and the list of major issues facing lawmakers has only grown while they were away from D.C.

Most immediately, Congress will need to consider an emergency aid package related to the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, which has effectively closed the port.

The economic impact from a cargo ship crashing into the bridge and taking it down is being felt well beyond Baltimore, which handles more “roll on, roll off” cargo than any port in the United States.

The port moved nearly 850,000 vehicles last year, as well as construction and agricultural equipment.

Legislation to help the port reopen, and for the long-term reconstruction of the bridge, is still being developed by members of the Maryland congressional delegation.

“We are ready to receive whatever the president brings and sends to the Congress,” said Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., whose 7th District includes the port of Baltimore.

President Joe Biden visited Baltimore on Friday, getting an aerial view of the extensive damage to the bridge, meeting with lawmakers and Maryland Gov. Wes Moore and getting briefed on recovery efforts.

He also met with some members of families of the six people who died when the bridge collapsed.

Maryland’s congressional delegation plans to meet on Tuesday on Capitol Hill with the head of the Office of Management and Budget, Shalanda Young.

They will try to firm up legislation that will need to be approved by Congress.

The exact cost of the overall measure is still being worked out. But the long-term cost of building a new bridge is expected to be anywhere from the hundreds of millions of dollars to well over $1 billion.

Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., has suggested that initial legislation not cover the entire cost of the project, since its completion will be years away.

Mfume recently spoke with House Speaker Mike Johnson and said Johnson appeared open to taking up legislation to help Baltimore, which will in turn help the rest of the country.

“We do not want to effect the economy and he understood that,” Mfume said.

Will aid for Ukraine jeopardize Johnson’s job?

Addressing the bridge collapse and emergency legislation should be relatively straightforward for Johnson, compared to the political tightrope he’s walking when it comes to the House taking up more aid for Ukraine.

Johnson has put off the issue for months, since GOP conservatives have made it clear why they strongly oppose voting on more military assistance.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., continues to hold out her threat to call for a vote to oust Johnson from the speakership after a filing a motion last month to vacate the chair.

Several House Republicans have indicated they don’t have the stomach for another ouster of the speaker after they left the lower chamber leaderless for more than three weeks last year, following the ouster of former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Politically floundering in another attempt to find a new GOP leader during an election year would not be a good look.

Still, Greene, over the break, stepped up her criticism of Johnson on a number of fronts. They were scheduled to talk to each other on Friday ahead of lawmakers’ return next week.

Johnson has floated several ideas related to aid for Ukraine, including making it some type of loan.

Democrats, meanwhile, insist that Johnson should take up the bill that already passed in the Senate, which includes $60 billion in aid for Ukraine, as well as aid for Israel.

New questions about aid for Israel

This week’s deadly Israeli drone strikes that claimed the lives of seven humanitarian workers with Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen in Gaza have complicated matters in Congress.

Some lawmakers are stepping up calls for additional U.S. aid to Israel to be conditional, given the latest incident and concerns about civilian deaths in the region.

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said in a statement Friday that the attack on the WCK workers “crystallizes the frustration that is at a boiling point.”

President Biden, in a call to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, called the strike on the WCK team “unacceptable” and warned him about the need to relieve the humanitarian crisis or face a change in U.S. policy.

The House last fall approved an aid package for Israel, but it included provisions opposed by Senate Democrats and never moved forward in the upper chamber.

Johnson would likely have a hard time passing separate measures for both Ukraine and Israel, given all the latest developments, as well as his shrinking majority.

Many lawmakers from both parties are anxious to see how Johnson navigates the latest choppy political waters.

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Mitchell Miller

Mitchell Miller has worked at WTOP since 1996, as a producer, editor, reporter and Senior News Director. After working "behind the scenes," coordinating coverage and reporter coverage for years, Mitchell moved back to his first love -- reporting. He is now WTOP's Capitol Hill reporter.

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