Ukraine aid faces tougher crowd if Republicans take over

Last updated on September 22, 2022

The course of U.S. aid to Ukraine could hinge on the outcome of the November midterm elections.

Congress is poised to approve billions more in military aid next week as part of a deal to keep the government open past the Nov. 8 elections, but future deals may be caught up in Republican infighting over federal spending that’s emerged in recent months, primarily in the House, if they win in November.

President Joe Biden’s latest request for nearly $12 billion is unlikely to be controversial as lawmakers haggle over myriad other proposals that could be attached to a stopgap funding bill. And though many GOP defense hawks argue the bulk of the party will still support efforts to repel Vladimir Putin’s invasion, a divide between the party’s establishment wing and conservatives aligned with former President Donald Trump suggests the window for massive emergency bills — like a $40 billion package passed in May — is closing.

“There is some push, but I think the majority [will] support Ukraine because it’s in our national security interest,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) predicted. “Now, I don’t know that we’ll do a $40 billion clip like we did before.”

Lawmakers are likely to deliver fresh Ukraine funding as part of a continuing resolution before Oct. 1 to prevent a shutdown. Congress has approved tens of billions in emergency security and humanitarian assistance since Russia launched its invasion in February, while the administration has shipped billions worth of weapons and equipment from military inventories.

“The CR will pass and with full Ukraine aid, I predict,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense expert with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “But there is no doubt the era of large emergency supplemental spending bills for Ukraine end with this next one for a variety of reasons.

“It would be too simplistic to say it is one issue more than another at this point. But voters are speaking up to conservative members of Congress,” Eaglen added. “This is really driven from the grassroots to Washington and not the other way around.”

Republicans accounted for the only votes this spring against the $40 billion aid package — the largest and most extensive commitment to Ukraine so far — with 57 House members and 11 senators opposing the legislation. Opponents of the package and further emergency aid argued more needs to be done to account for how the money is spent and to trace weapons and equipment sent into the fight against Russia.

Conservative opponents have also argued that non-offset spending comes at the expense of addressing domestic issues they’ve hammered Biden and Democrats on, including high inflation and immigration.

“A lot of Republicans said, ‘I voted for that one, I’m not going to vote for anymore,’ said one House GOP member who opposed the $40 billion aid bill. “And then the backlash at home was fierce.”

“America can’t afford to provide a blank checkbook to Ukraine when we have inflation, gas prices, supply chain crisis, all of the above, going on at home,” said the lawmaker, who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about the dynamics of the Republican Conference. “That’s what I’m hearing from my voters.”

Republicans are narrowly favored to win the House, while control of the Senate is a toss-up. A Republican House in 2023 will likely be more conservative than previous majorities, which means more skepticism of providing money for Ukraine.

Conservative Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said a GOP majority should “hip check” the White House into explaining how new money will be spent and force offsets for emergency spending such as the funding approved for Ukraine. He blasted other Republicans who “use defense as an excuse to spend all manners of money.”

“Where is guns and butter anymore? We just keep writing checks,” Roy said. “There’s no limiting principle. So no, count me against throwing more money at Ukraine without having a serious conversation about guns and butter, a serious conversation about why we’re spending it and how it’s in our national security interest.”

“BREAKING: Congress has agreed on a bill to fund the government,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tweeted on Monday. “UNFORTUNATELY: it’s the government of Ukraine.”

For now, defense hawks have racked up a series of wins. They have increased Ukraine assistance, and have criticized the administration for not speeding up the delivery of weapons or providing specific systems Ukraine’s government has requested. Defense-oriented Republicans have also leveraged billions of dollars in hikes to Biden’s military spending plans, with an eye toward attaining $1 trillion national defense budget in the next few years.

Disagreements have been more muted among Senate Republicans. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has aggressively pushed for more Ukraine cash, though fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul delayed quick passage of Ukraine aid in May.

The dynamics in a potential GOP-led House are more complex. Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will have to contend with a growing right flank that’s been a headache for leadership in the past and is already making demands on federal spending.

The difficulty of House Republican leaders’ task depends on the size of the GOP majority and “what percentage of them are the real militant folks as opposed to the more pragmatic segment,” said Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee who is in line to chair the panel.

If Republicans only eke out a small majority, he said, “It’s a disaster,”

“It’ll be just like when we were in the majority last time,” Rogers told POLITICO. “We’ll be paralyzed. On everything.”

“Whoever’s whip is going to have a big job ahead of them” convincing conservatives, added Rep. Ken Calvert of California, the top Republican on the panel that controls Pentagon funding.

The conservative House Freedom Caucus is calling on GOP leaders to reject any government funding deal in the lame duck period after the midterms. Banking on control of the House and Senate, the group instead wants leaders to push for a funding freeze into the new year so Republicans can slash spending to levels last seen when Trump and the GOP were in control.

That effort could complicate a GOP fight to boost Pentagon spending. And some conservatives say they want more accountability for emergency spending on Ukraine and potentially even offsets to be on the table.

“To me, we need to demand accountability for how that money’s being spent so we know on a granular basis that it’s not just being squandered in Ukraine,” Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said.

Roy and 41 other Republicans also vowed this week in a letter to oppose any funding patch that ends during the current Democratic-controlled Congress.

Biden has requested $11.7 billion in military and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine to be included in a government funding deal. That includes $4.5 billion to arm Ukraine and replenish stocks of weapons shipped to Kyiv and $2.7 billion to continue military and intelligence support. The administration has also asked Congress to authorize shipping another $3.6 billion worth of weapons to Ukraine.

The proposal comes as a Ukrainian counteroffensive continues to reclaim territory occupied by Russian forces.

The administration has also signaled a shift toward long-term support for Kyiv as the war grinds on, including billions of dollars to fund contracts to the U.S. defense industry to produce artillery rounds, missiles and other weapons rather than pulling existing weapons off the shelf.

With just over a month until midterms, some Democrats are warning handing the reins to Republicans will jeopardize U.S. backing for Ukraine.

“They’re all coming out and saying it openly,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said. He argued a GOP majority could mean the money “goes away or Ukraine aid is going to be very difficult to get … and [Republicans] are going to be so inflexible that they’re not going to deal with the real conditions on the ground.

“It’s because Tucker Carlson controls the ideological spectrum when it comes to foreign policy and he’s a dumbass when it comes to foreign policy,” Gallego said.

“I’ve talked to a couple of the members that have voted for pro-Ukraine legislation in the past. They have town halls now where they come and get yelled at using Tucker Carlson talking points. And of course at some point they’re going to have to deal with primaries.”