Ukraine aid left out of US government funding package, raising questions about future support

Congressional supporters of Ukraine say they won’t give up

Kevin Freking
Sunday 01 October 2023 02:43 EDT
<p>Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky (centre) poses for a photo with House speaker Kevin McCarthy (left) and Hakeem Jeffries at a closed-door meeting with members of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington</p>

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky (centre) poses for a photo with House speaker Kevin McCarthy (left) and Hakeem Jeffries at a closed-door meeting with members of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington

Congressional supporters of Ukraine say they won’t give up after a bill to keep the federal government open excluded Joe Biden’s request to provide more security assistance to the war-torn nation.

Still, many lawmakers acknowledge that winning approval for Ukraine assistance in Congress is growing more difficult as the war between Russia and Ukraine grinds on. Republican resistance to the aid has been gaining momentum in the halls of Congress.

Voting in the House this past week pointed to the potential trouble ahead. Nearly half of House Republicans voted to strip $300m from a defence spending bill to train Ukrainian soldiers and purchase weapons. The money later was approved separately, but opponents of Ukraine support celebrated their growing numbers.

Then on Saturday, House speaker Kevin McCarthy omitted additional Ukraine aid from a measure to keep the government running until 17 November. In doing so, he closed the door on a Senate package that would have funnelled $6bn to Ukraine, roughly a third of what has been requested by the White House.

Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the stopgap measure, with members of both parties abandoning the increased aid for Ukraine in favour of avoiding a costly government shutdown.

The latest actions in Congress signal a gradual shift in the unwavering support that the US has so far pledged Ukraine in its fight against Russia, and it is one of the clearest examples yet of the Republican party’s movement towards a more isolationist stance.

The exclusion of Ukraine funding came little more than a week after lawmakers met in the Capitol with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who sought to assure lawmakers that his military was winning the war, but stressed that additional aid would be crucial for continuing the fight.

After that visit, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said one sentence summed up Mr Zelensky’s message in his meeting with the Senate. “If we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war,” Schumer said, quoting the Ukrainian president.

Yet Mr McCarthy, pressured by his right flank, has gone from saying “no blank checks” for Ukraine, with the focus being on accountability, to describing the Senate’s approach as putting “Ukraine in front of America.” He declined to say after the vote on government funding whether he would bring aid for Ukraine up for a House vote in the coming weeks.

“If there is a moment in time we need to have a discussion about that, we will have a discussion completely about that, but I think the administration has to make the case for what is victory,” Mr McCarthy said.

In the Senate, both Mr Schumer and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell pledged to move quickly to try and pass the full White House request. But it was clear that goal will be increasingly difficult as more rank-and-file GOP senators have questioned the aid or demanded that it be attached to immigration policy that would help secure the southern border – echoing similar demands in the House.

Florida senator Rick Scott, a Republican who voted for the spending bill after the Ukraine aid was stripped out, said Congress needs to have “a conversation with the American public”. He said he was optimistic after seeing the money taken out of the bill.

“In my state, people want to be helpful to Ukraine, but they also want to be helpful to Americans,” Mr Scott said. “And so they want to really understand how this money has been spent.”

Democrats said they were disappointed by the lack of Ukraine funding, but expressed determination that they would get the aid to the war-torn country.

“We will not stop fighting for more economic and security assistance for Ukraine,” Mr Schumer said after the bill passed. “Majorities in both parties support Ukraine aid, and doing more is vital for America’s security and for democracy around the world.”

Leading up to Saturday's vote, Pentagon officials expressed alarm at the prospect of no extra funding for Ukraine. In a letter to congressional leaders dated Friday, Michael McCord, under secretary of defence, wrote that the department has exhausted nearly all the available security assistance.

“Without additional funding now, we would have to delay or curtail assistance to meet Ukraine’s urgent requirements, including for air defence and ammunition that are critical and urgent now as Russia prepares to conduct a winter offensive and continues its bombardment of Ukrainian cities,” McCord said.

Representative Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he would like to send a clear message to the world about US support for Ukraine by passing legislation, but believes the Pentagon has “enough draw-down money” to last through December. He said he believes Mr McCarthy still supports funding for Ukraine.

“I think the speaker has always had a good position on Ukraine. I think he’s dealing with a caucus that’s got fractures that he has to deal with and none of them can be ignored when you’ve got a four-seat majority and 15 nuts in the conference,” Rogers said, referring to far-right lawmakers who have staunchly opposed funding for Ukraine.

Representative Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he heard Mr McCarthy tell Mr Zelensky during his visit that “we will give them what they need”.

“Unfortunately, the message that speaker and the former president is sending is that they can't be relied upon,” Mr Meeks said, adding a reference to former president Donald Trump, who has called on Congress to withhold additional Ukraine funding until the FBI, IRS and Justice Department “hand over every scrap of evidence” on the Biden family’s business dealings.

The US has approved four rounds of aid to Ukraine in response to Russia’s invasion, totalling about $113bn, with some of that money going toward replenishment of US military equipment that was sent to the frontlines. In August, Mr Biden called on Congress to provide for an additional $24bn.

Saturday’s move by the House to act first on government funding left the Senate with a stark choice: either go along with a bill that fails to help Ukraine, or allow what could have been an extended government shutdown to occur.

Senator Chris Murphy expressed frustration at the outcome.

“Every day that goes by that we don’t get the additional money is a day Russia gets closer to being capable of winning this war,” Mr Murphy said.

Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Ukraine should not be deterred, and that aid can be approved by other means.

“Neither our friends nor our enemies should look at this as being some change in the United States’ commitment to Ukraine,” Mr Risch said.

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Associated Press writers Stephen Groves and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

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