Oct 18, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Ukraine aid under threat in Republican-controlled House

Illustration of an elephant trunk holding a roll of money in front on a Ukrainian flag

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) publicly confirmed Tuesday what many in Washington and Europe privately fear: a Republican-controlled House could shut off the spigot funding Ukraine's efforts to defend itself against Russia's invasion.

Why it matters: Unlike aggressive oversight hearings or political messaging bills, a Republican majority's approach to Ukraine would reverberate far beyond the Beltway. A reduction or halt in U.S. military aid would create a geopolitical earthquake with the potential to alter the trajectory of Russian President Vladimir Putin's war.

What's happening: Even House Republicans who have been outspoken about supporting Ukraine — including McCarthy, who this week compared Putin to Hitler — say there has been a noticeable shift away from what was once a broad bipartisan consensus.

  • "I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine. They just won’t do it," McCarthy said in an interview with Punchbowl News.
  • "I've noticed it. You see it a little bit on social media, you see it with some of our members," said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), though he added he doesn't believe the majority of the conference shares those views.
  • Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) said the shift is likely being driven by feedback from constituents, telling Axios: "When people are seeing a 13% increase in grocery prices; energy, utility bills doubling ... if you're a border community and you're being overrun by migrants and fentanyl, Ukraine is the furthest thing from your mind."

State of play: In May, 57 House Republicans voted "no" on a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine. That number is poised to rise considerably, especially if more skeptical Republican candidates are swept into Congress in a GOP wave.

  • "After the $40 billion, there were a lot of Republicans saying, 'This is the last time I'm going to support Ukraine funding,'" said one senior House Republican.
  • "Another billion to Ukraine and 87,000 new IRS agents," tweeted Texas candidate Wesley Hunt in August. "At this rate we should at least make them the 51st state so they can start paying some federal income tax."

The intrigue: Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a steadfast Ukraine supporter who is also a vocal critic of his party's conservative flank, said Republican leadership has been "tiptoeing away" from supporting Ukraine for political reasons.

  • "Kevin McCarthy, let's be clear ... his whole existence right now is to please enough people to win the speakership," Kinzinger told Axios.
  • A GOP congressional aide echoed that sentiment and said concern about the House is "overstated," suggesting McCarthy is "counting votes for Speaker and doesn't want to rock the boat ahead of time."

Behind the scenes: Even if McCarthy is just posturing, conservative factions in Congress are actively working to oppose future aid spending — buoyed by a powerful complex of outside groups that includes the Heritage Foundation, the Koch network, FreedomWorks and the Center for Renewing America.

  • Dan Caldwell, a senior adviser to Concerned Veterans for America and vice president for foreign policy at Stand Together, both part of the Koch network, told Axios his groups have been sending polling to lawmakers and "activated our grassroots army to lobby members to support a better Ukraine policy."
  • Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chair of the 158-member Republican Study Committee, told Axios: "RSC believes you can’t lead abroad when you’re so weak at home. Our GOP agenda in the new Majority needs to secure our own border and get America back on our feet by addressing energy cost and inflation."

What to watch: The party is united on at least one position when it comes to Ukraine: there should be a thorough accounting of every dollar sent.

  • "What Republicans want to see is more accountability and oversight, and also to make sure it's going for the right purpose," said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee and another vocal Ukraine supporter.
  • McCaul added that his colleagues have grumbled about the U.S. footing the bill to a greater degree than other large NATO allies, like Germany and France.
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