WASHINGTON ― The White House has relinquished its hold on $250 million in military aid to Ukraine after weeks of bipartisan pressure from lawmakers who said the funding was needed to deter Russia.
Republicans and Democratic members of the Senate Appropriations Committee said Thursday the administration had relented late Wednesday. The news emerged in a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on fiscal 2020 defense spending.
President Donald Trump’s initial hold angered some lawmakers who are typically his allies, including South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that covers State Department spending.
“I will be the strongest voice here if they don’t timely release the [2020 military aid],” Graham said.
It was the White House Office of Management and Budget that lifted the hold, which applied to both the $250 million in the Pentagon’s Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative and $141.5 million in foreign military financing being prepared separately by the State Department, according to congressional sources.
“Many of the people in Congress did want to see the money freed up,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, another Trump ally. “I had lots of discussions with the administration about this, but they were between me and the administration — the chief administrator to be exact.”
Sen. Richard Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, speculated that an amendment he planned to offer Thursday on the matter forced the administration’s hand on the money, which Congress approved in the FY19 budget.
“Why are you holding this up? This is life-and-death funding for a country that is fighting one of our enemies in the world,” Durbin said.
Relations between Ukraine and Russia nosedived in 2014 after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and threw its weight behind separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine.
Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford defended the administration’s deliberation, given the election of a new president in Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, whose allegiance to the U.S. was initially in question. Lankford, however, expressed support for U.S. aid in Ukraine’s fight against Russia and thought the Trump administration took too long.
“It was entirely reasonable that the United States spent a couple of months getting to know him and his administration,” Lankford said, adding that he had recently visited Kyiv for the same purpose. “I think we should have moved faster, but there was due diligence, and the administration has been active in trying to get lethal aid to the Ukrainians in the past.”
Speaking at a Defense Writers Group event Thursday, R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, announced that Congress was notified late Wednesday that $141.5 million in funding was available to Ukraine. That money covers sniper rifles, grenade launchers and other items.
Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.