Kevin McCarthy’s stunning ouster as House speaker Tuesday is putting the future of U.S. assistance to Ukraine in serious doubt.
With uncertainty over who will replace him and how much they will push for more aid, as well as rising reluctance from Republicans to approve more help, some of Ukraine’s allies think a different approach is needed: instead of biting off little pieces of aid, go for a big enough amount to allow it to keep fighting Russian invaders until after the 2024 elections.
That would be a much tougher political sell, but recent votes in the House and opinion polls show it may be more palatable than the current piecemeal approach.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tuesday night that he had discussed the idea of full-year funding with Kevin McCarthy, the now former House speaker.
“We thought a year funding would make more sense in a lot of ways: to give the Ukrainians a sense of confidence but also, from a political standpoint, to not have to take this vote once every three months,” McCaul said.
He said the ouster of McCarthy, the first in the House’s history of a sitting speaker by declaring the speaker’s position vacant, will likely delay action on a series of government funding bills. That will likely mean Congress passes a handful of bills funding a few agencies at a time, one of which would include aid to Ukraine, McCaul said.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters on Wednesday he had spoken with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a huge Ukraine aid advocate, about passing a “big” aid package for Ukraine. He didn’t give any specifics or a timeline.
“We have large bipartisan majorities for aid to Ukraine, and we’re going to work to get that done,” Schumer vowed at a weekly press conference.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is drafting a package that would pair Ukraine aid with additional funding for border security, a GOP priority. The bill would include enough funding to run through next year’s elections, making it more politically palatable for Republicans who would prefer not to take multiple difficult votes on an issue that is controversial with their base.
“We thought a year funding would make more sense in a lot of ways: to give the Ukrainians a sense of confidence but also, from a political standpoint, to not have to take this vote once every three months.”
“We’re working on a robust package for Ukraine and border security,” Graham said Wednesday.
Though it is true there’s broad support on Capitol Hill for continuing to help Ukraine fend off a Russian invasion that began in February 2022, there are two problems: A significant part of the Republican majority in the House has signaled little interest in Ukraine aid, reflecting the stance of former President Donald Trump, and opinion polls have shown support dropping closer to a 50-50 proposition with the public as the war has ground on.
Recent votes in the House have shown more of its Republican members willing to oppose aid. A vote last week on $300 million to train Ukrainian troops saw a new high of 117 Republicans, more than half of the House GOP’s 221 members, in opposition, while all Democrats voted in favor.
But with the outcome of the vote not in doubt, it’s unclear how many of those votes were from GOP members souring on aid or merely looking to cast a vote that could help them fend off a primary opponent from the right.
Recent polling has found Americans split on the idea but with Republicans having become much more skeptical of continued aid.
A CNN survey compiled in July and released in early August found 55% of Americans opposed further aid, with 71% of Republicans in opposition. But a CBS/YouGov poll in September found that 54% overall supported sending weapons, although only 39% of Republicans did so.
Adding to the uncertainty is the mystery of who will be the next House speaker, especially after Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of the candidates seeking to become the new speaker, made it clear he opposed an aid package for Ukraine.
“Kevin supports Ukraine. I’m not sure who the next speaker’s going to be and where they’re going to be on the issue,” McCaul said.
“There’s no speaker, there’s no leadership. Promises were made by a speaker who’s now out of a job. So of course I’m concerned,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told HuffPost.
“We have large bipartisan majorities for aid to Ukraine, and we’re going to work to get that done.”
Perhaps responding to criticism that the White House has not done enough to make the public case for Ukraine, President Joe Biden said Wednesday that he planned to make a major speech outlining the stakes of the conflict soon.
The $6 billion in Ukraine aid stripped from the stopgap bill passed Saturday to keep the government open was meant to be a down payment for a larger $20 billion in aid in a supplemental bill. But even more would be required to get Ukraine past the elections.
On the other hand, recurring votes would give Republicans some leverage with the White House and tamp down possible criticism about accounting for the money.
“By doing it, let’s say, every three months, it gives Congress a little more control and accountability ... that it’s not a blank check,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said without committing to either option.
McCaul said Ukraine had enough aid in the pipeline to keep fighting for about 45 more days, close to the amount of time the stopgap funding bill will keep the U.S. government funded. One Ukraine ally said the issue will not be going away soon, even if McCarthy’s ouster affects how quickly it is dealt with.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said, “There is a clear, very substantial bipartisan majority of both the Senate and the House that supports continuing aid to Ukraine. And you thwart that will at your own peril.”