White House eyes GOP divisions over Ukraine war funding with suspicion
The murky picture of a divided GOP presents a clear challenge for President Joe Biden: Should his administration try to funnel more aid to Ukraine into an unavoidable year-end spending bill to avoid public maneuvering with Republicans on future funding?
Privately, Biden aides think McCarthy will blink and keep the funnel open to Ukraine, at least for a while, though he may insist on smaller numbers. They also anticipate internal pressure from Republicans – some from House members like Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, and others from the Senate, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (who once exercised it) – so that the money continues to circulate.
Their calculation is that a political backlash would burn the GOP if the money stopped, Ukraine suffered, and Russia emerged triumphant.
There are signs that, on this front, the White House may have allies in a GOP-led Congress, or at least sympathetic ears. Fitzpatrick, for his part, directly took issue with McCarthy’s comments to Punchbowl News that US aid should not be “a blank check”.
“Nobody talks about a blank check. What’s this [Ukraine] needs,” Fitzpatrick said in an interview. “It’s a historical thing where war fatigue sets in, and that’s the big risk. In fact, it’s something that Vladimir Putin is betting on, that it’s not going to make the headlines anymore… and people will forget about it and the genocide will happen in the dark.We are trying to prevent that.
For now, what is clear is that Republicans are increasingly divided between the McCarthy camp – which doubts more than several billion dollars for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the American economy turns towards the recession – and the McConnell camp, which remains in favor of additional aid. The likely next chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), made his preference known this week, calling for continued arms transfers and military assistance.
“Ukrainians – when we give them what they need, they win,” McCaul told Bloomberg TV.
Conservatives like Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), meanwhile, dominate the cable tie camp. Roy, a member of the House Freedom Caucus who frequently takes a hard line against federal spending, said McCarthy’s position on aid to Ukraine is the most “responsible”.
The White House has yet to publicly indicate that the GOP’s latest yellow lights alter one of its plans for a post-election legislative sprint that could prove its last chance to further accelerate Ukraine aid in a must-have government spending bill. .
But administration officials have also been preparing for a time when the congressional tap will be tightened, knowing that no amount of war funding can continue indefinitely. There have been preliminary discussions about trying to pass an aid package during the lame session if the GOP takes the House, though nothing has been finalized.
A spokesperson for the National Security Council simply told POLITICO that the administration would continue to ask Congress to help Kyiv hold off Moscow “for as long as it takes,” echoing President Joe Biden’s similar wish more earlier this year at the annual NATO summit.
The White House has not issued a recent warning to the Ukrainian government that aid could end if Republicans take control of at least one chamber of Congress in January. But White House aides said Kyiv was well aware of the possibility. Zelenskyy and his top advisers have tried to pressure Democrats and Republicans to maintain funding even as the war drags on and concerns about a global recession grow.
Importantly, Republicans and Democrats want to see additional oversight and accountability for the weapons and equipment the United States sends to Ukraine. They also want to see European nations stepping up their support so the United States doesn’t carry all the burden. But many GOP lawmakers fear their Donald Trump-inspired base will push 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 polls have also shown an erosion of GOP support for funding Ukraine. A September Pew Research poll found that a third of Republicans think the US is giving Ukraine too much support, up from just 9% at the start of the war.
Others, however, insist that the United States can advance its national security interests without turning a blind eye to challenges in the United States.
“It will be uncertain at the next Congress, with a potentially divided government, how difficult it will be to maintain our support for Ukraine,” Fitzpatrick added. “Now is not the time to slow down, let alone stop, our support.”
Pressure is also mounting on the White House from Democrats, who see the December funding as perhaps the last opportunity to prop up Ukraine’s military until the end of the war.
However, some Democrats say December may be too early for Zelenskyy’s government to know what kinds of weapons and other equipment it needs to take the fight into the winter. The government’s interim funding bill last month provided $12 billion for Ukraine, and lawmakers expected they would not need to consider additional aid until early 2023.
“The administration may have no choice but to ask for more money in December,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a staunch White House ally. “But maybe it’s not the right time for Ukraine. So it’s a whole new world, with Republicans openly announcing that they’re preparing to hand Ukraine over to Putin.
Murphy warned that the effect on Ukraine’s planning “is potentially seismic,” possibly forcing Zelenskyy’s government “to start making decisions now if they think McCarthy and House Republicans are going to cut them and run them in January”.
McCarthy’s stance on the issue reflects growing concerns about the stability of the Western alliance when it comes to supporting Ukraine and applying sanctions against Russia. Far-right leaders across Europe have signaled unease with sustaining the war effort, citing economic pain at home fueled in part by rising energy costs, a victim of US-led sanctions United States against Moscow.
Meanwhile, US allies in Eastern Europe cling to optimism — at least publicly — about the momentum on Capitol Hill. Speaking in Washington this week, Estonia’s Ambassador to the United States, Kristjan Prikk, said only that he had “been assured by various members of Congress that there is strong grassroots support to continue the assistance to Ukraine for as long as necessary from both parties”.
Alexander Ward contributed reporting.