Opinion: It’s time for mainstream House Republicans to stand up

File photo/Kenny Holston/The New York Times / House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks to reporters at the Capitol Building in Washington on July 25, 2023. Congress is poised to dive into an epic fight over spending, as the Senate for the first time in years puts appropriations bills on the floor for debate and McCarthy tries to find his way out of a complex funding tangle that could ultimately threaten his leadership post.

Once again, House Republicans are putting themselves in an impossible position.

This time it's over President Joe Biden's request for $40 billion in emergency spending for Ukraine, disaster relief, border security and other priorities popular with voters and all supported by a bipartisan majority in the Senate. However, a group of Republicans who oppose aiding Ukraine want it removed from the bill and barring that want to stop the package from reaching the House floor for a vote.

This leaves the Republican conference in the position of blocking spending that most Americans think is vital and urgent — especially new funding for FEMA in the wake of the Maui wildfire, hurricanes and other disasters.

Indeed, it's likely that a majority of the House and even a majority of House Republicans would support exactly what Senate Democrats and Republicans will end up passing. The last time the House voted on aid to Ukraine, in July, efforts to cut off or even reduce assistance were soundly defeated, with well over half of Republicans joining all the Democrats. It's unlikely that much has changed since then.

In fact, it's likely that sooner or later the House will end up doing what the Senate and Biden want — but only after a fight that will make House Republicans look bad, force many of them to cast votes that could be used against them next fall, and perhaps even threaten Speaker Kevin McCarthy's job.

Isn't there some way they can avoid this?

Well, yes. But only if House Republicans in vulnerable seats and relatively moderate mainstream conservatives step up to fight for themselves and their party.

I'm not saying that the House Freedom Caucus and other extreme House Republicans are blameless. But they have the right to oppose support for Ukraine. It may be a wrong position, or even a foolish one — I certainly think so, as do most foreign policy experts — but they're entitled to push for their policy preferences. That's how Congress works. That includes attempting to wield more control over the outcome than their numbers would suggest, in part by repeating their threat to oust McCarthy if he doesn't do what they want.

Then there's McCarthy. As usual, he's mainly protecting himself, not the members of his party. The truth is that if 50 or so of his members are constantly speaking out against the bill and none of their colleagues are willing to take them on, then McCarthy is in a way just listening to the members of his conference. He's siding with an intense minority — the loud group opposing Ukraine aid — against an apparently indifferent majority who would vote for aid but not push for it publicly.

Which brings us to the rest of the House Republicans — mainstream conservatives, including relatively moderate ones, some of whom are in tough districts and could be defeated by Democrats in 2024. While Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other mainstream conservatives in the Senate are speaking up for this package, their House counterparts are — as usual — missing in action.

They don't have to be. They could fight back. Loudly. In public. They could make it clear that this bill has the votes to pass and that they want a vote on it. They could even mirror the extreme wing's tactic: threaten McCarthy's job if he doesn't put the bill, including aid to Ukraine, on the House floor.

Instead, just as they were in the speakership vote and on the debt limit, most House Republicans are either too scared or just too indifferent to bother acting. In doing so, they aren't only weakening their own position, but weakening the bargaining power of their party — and making House Republicans as a group an easy and obvious scapegoat for anything that goes wrong.