Oct 4, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Speaker chaos deepens Ukraine funding threat

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) surrounded by reporters Wednesday. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

U.S. aid to Ukraine is emerging as the biggest potential casualty from Kevin McCarthy's ouster as House speaker, as GOP candidates jostle for support from a conference that has grown increasingly hostile to the war effort.

Why it matters: Publicly, McCarthy toed a skeptical line on Ukraine, keenly aware that any misstep would trigger a backlash from the right flank that ultimately sealed his fate. Privately, he struck a tone far more aligned with the national security establishment.

  • Case in point: McCarthy denied Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky the chance to address a joint meeting of Congress last month as GOP hardliners threatened a government shutdown.
  • But in a closed-door meeting the same day, McCarthy told Zelensky that he supports Ukraine and asked what could be done to assure skeptical Republicans that the war is winnable.

What they're saying: In a remarkably candid press conference following his removal Tuesday night, McCarthy cited his visit to Ukraine in 2015 — after Russia first sent troops into the eastern Donbas region — as a reason the issue is "so personal" to him.

  • "I'm really concerned long-term: What's happening looks a lot like the 1930s. A lot of action Putin takes is a lot like Hitler," McCarthy said, drawing parallels between Russia's invasion and the buildup to World War II.

Between the lines: McCarthy also acknowledged telling President Biden that the House would ensure he could transfer existing U.S. weapon stockpiles to Ukraine, after that authorization was left out of the stopgap funding bill.

  • Twice during the last several days, Biden has made vague references to that commitment — which now appears to be dead.
  • Biden announced Wednesday that he plans to give a "major speech" on Ukraine soon, as U.S. officials privately assess that Russia is ramping up its influence operations with the goal of undermining support for Kyiv.
  • In a letter to congressional leaders last week, a Pentagon official warned that the U.S. only had $1.6 billion remaining of the $25.9 billion Congress has provided for replenishing stockpiles sent to Ukraine.

State of play: Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a top contender for speaker, told reporters that he opposes putting a new Ukraine aid package on the floor: "The most pressing issue on Americans' minds is not Ukraine," he said.

  • A spokesperson later clarified that Jordan wants to know what the end goal of U.S. support is and how the money is being spent — a position echoed by Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), another likely candidate for speaker.
  • House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), the front-runner for the job, voted in favor of a $300 million Ukraine funding package last week — but like any other candidate, his path to 218 votes will be extremely fraught if he publicly names Ukraine a priority.
  • Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), one of the most vocal opponents of the war effort, has vowed not to support any speaker candidate who supports aid to Ukraine.

The intrigue: A new poll out today shows 63% of Americans still favor arming Ukraine — even as Republican support has dropped from 68% to 50% since July 2022.

  • A bipartisan, pro-Ukraine majority exists in both chambers of Congress, but the outsized influence of House GOP hardliners is threatening to block new funding from ever reaching the floor.
  • Some Republicans are eyeing a grand compromise with Democrats that ties Ukraine aid to border security measures, but nothing can move forward while the House remains paralyzed.

The bottom line: Biden's team was scrambling as recently as this week — before McCarthy's ouster — to assure U.S. allies that aid would continue despite growing GOP opposition.

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