White House warily eyes GOP divisions on Ukraine war funding
The GOP’s internal rift over how long to keep U.S. aid flowing to war-ravaged Ukraine is spilling into public view weeks before a midterm election that could hand the party full control of Congress.
When Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — the likely speaker of a GOP House next year — suggested this week that he’d pull back on U.S. funding for Ukraine’s battle against Russia, it wasn’t the first signal to the Biden administration that Republican lawmakers are leery of prolonged financial support for Kyiv. But for many in Congress, including some Republicans, McCarthy’s comments only heightened the urgency of going big on a Ukraine aid package in December before the California Republican likely takes the reins of the House.
The GOP leader’s comments also drew pointed, if subtle, rejoinders from corners of the party that don’t want to edge away from fiscal commitment to Ukraine’s war effort. One piece of pushback came from former Vice President Mike Pence, who used a Wednesday speech to chide Republicans who “would have us disengage with the wider world” and then took to Fox News to push his party for continued Ukraine aid.
The murky picture of a divided GOP presents a clear challenge to President Joe Biden: Should his administration try to front-load more Ukraine aid in a must-pass year-end spending bill to avoid public jockeying with Republicans over future funding?
Privately, Biden aides believe that McCarthy will blink and keep the funnel open to Ukraine, at least for a while, though he may insist on smaller numbers. They also forecast internal pressure from Republicans — some from House members like Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, and more in the Senate, including from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (who’s exerted it before) — to keep the money flowing.
Their calculus is that a political blowback would singe the GOP if the money stopped, Ukraine suffered, and Russia emerged triumphant.
There are some signs that, on this front, the White House may have allies in a GOP-led Congress, or at least sympathetic ears. Fitzpatrick, for one, directly took issue with McCarthy’s comments to Punchbowl News that U.S. assistance shouldn’t be “a blank check.”
“Nobody’s talking about a blank check. It’s what [Ukraine] needs,” Fitzpatrick said in an interview. “This is a historical thing where war fatigue sets in, and this is the big risk. In fact, it’s something that Vladimir Putin banks on, that it’s no longer going to capture the front page of the newspaper … and people are going to forget about it and the genocide will be occurring in the darkness. We’re trying to prevent that.”
For now, what’s clear is that Republicans are increasingly divided between the McCarthy camp — dubious of more multi-billion-dollar boosts to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the U.S. economy veers toward recession — and the McConnell camp, which remains supportive of additional aid. The House Foreign Affairs Committee’s likely next chair, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), made his preference known this week by calling for continued weapons transfers and military assistance.
“The Ukrainians — when we give them what they need, they win,” McCaul told Bloomberg TV.
Conservatives like Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), meanwhile, dominate the tighten-the-pursestrings camp. Roy, a House Freedom Caucus member who frequently takes a hard line against federal spending, said McCarthy’s position on Ukraine aid is the more “responsible” one.
The White House has yet to publicly indicate that the latest GOP yellow lights are changing any of its plans for a post-election legislative sprint that could prove its last chance to frontload more Ukraine assistance in a must-pass government spending bill.
But administration officials have also prepared for a moment when the congressional spigot will tighten, knowing that no war funding can continue indefinitely. There have been preliminary discussions about trying to pass an aid package during the lame-duck session if the GOP does take the House, though nothing has been finalized.
A National Security Council spokesperson told POLITICO simply that the administration would keep asking Congress to help Kyiv beat back Moscow “for as long as it takes,” echoing President Joe Biden’s similar vow earlier this year at the annual NATO summit.
The White House has not delivered a recent warning to the Ukrainian government about the possibility of aid ceasing if Republicans take control of at least one chamber of Congress in January. But White House aides said that Kyiv is well aware of the possibility. Zelenskyy and his top advisers have tried to lobby Democrats and Republicans alike to keep the funding going even as the war drags on and worries about a global recession grow.
Importantly, Republicans and Democrats writ large want to see additional oversight and accountability when it comes to weapons and equipment the U.S. is sending to Ukraine. They also want to see European nations step up with more support so that the U.S. isn’t bearing the entire burden. But many GOP lawmakers are worried that their Donald Trump-inspired base is pushing elected Republicans to abandon Ukraine altogether.
Dozens of House Republicans — 57 of whom voted against a $40 billion aid package in May — agree with McCarthy. Recent polling, too, has shown an erosion of GOP support for Ukraine funding. A September Pew Research poll found that a third of Republicans believe the U.S. is providing too much support for Ukraine, up from just 9 percent at the beginning of the war.
Others, though, insist the U.S. can advance its national security interests without turning a blind eye to stateside challenges.
“It’s going to be uncertain in the next Congress, with a potentially divided government, how difficult it’s going to be to sustain our support for Ukraine,” added Fitzpatrick. “This is no time to slow down, let alone stop, our assistance.”
Pressure is building on the White House from Democrats, too, who see the December funding dash as possibly the last opportunity to sustain the Ukrainian military through the end of the war.
However, some Democrats say, December might be too soon for Zelenskyy’s government to know which types of weapons and other equipment it needs to carry the fight through the winter. Last month’s stopgap government funding bill included $12 billion for Ukraine, and lawmakers were expecting that they wouldn’t need to consider additional aid until the beginning of 2023.
“It may be that the administration will have no choice but to ask for more money in December,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a staunch White House ally. “But that might not be the right time for Ukraine. So this is a brand new world, with Republicans openly advertising that they are prepping to hand Ukraine to Putin.”
Murphy warned that the effect on Ukraine’s planning “is potentially seismic,” possibly forcing Zelenskyy’s government “to start making decisions right now if they think that McCarthy and House Republicans are going to cut and run on them in January.”
McCarthy’s posture on the issue reflects growing concerns about the stability of the Western alliance when it comes to supporting Ukraine and enforcing sanctions on Russia. Far-right leaders across Europe have signaled an uneasiness with maintaining the war effort, citing economic pain at home fueled in part by rising energy costs, a casualty of the U.S.-led sanctions targeting Moscow.
Meanwhile, U.S. allies in eastern Europe are clinging to optimism — at least publicly — about the dynamics on Capitol Hill. Speaking in Washington this week, Estonia’s U.S. ambassador Kristjan Prikk said only that he has “been assured by different members of the Congress that there is a strong core support to continue the assistance to Ukraine as long as needed from both parties.”
Alexander Ward contributed reporting.
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Author: By Andrew Desiderio and Jonathan Lemire