WASHINGTON — Republican leaders who hope to take control of Congress after the November elections would face a growing gap between members of their caucus calling for more robust aid to Ukraine and a contingent skeptical of continuing to shell out billions of dollars to Kyiv as the war with Russia continues.
The schism between the party’s establishment Republicans and Trump-style populists raises questions about whether President Joe Biden can rely on lawmakers to continue funding the influx of U.S. military equipment to Ukraine if Democrats lose control of Congress.
The House’s No. 2 and 3 Republican leaders — Minority Whip Steve Scalise and conference chair Elise Stefanik — wouldn’t commit to their conference keeping the aid flowing should Republicans take control of the House in January, even though they both cast votes in favor of Ukraine aid in the past.
“There are a lot of members that want to see more accountability in the Department of Defense and more of a focus on the threats that are out there,” Scalise, of Louisiana, told reporters Wednesday. “China is moving very aggressively to build up a naval fleet, and right now our naval fleet is in decline.”
The $40 billion Ukraine supplemental split Republicans when it passed Congress in May, and, if Republicans pick up seats in the midterms, it’s unclear where the new members would land on the issue. In the House, 57 Republicans voted no, while 149 voted with the Democratic majority; in the Senate, 11 voted no, while 39 voted yes with Democrats.
The tally reflects changing views within the party. Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the influential conservative Heritage Foundation, was among right-leaning groups that have started to lobby Congress against the White House’s recent request to package $13.7 billion in Ukraine aid and funding for COVID-19 relief with a stopgap spending bill.
Ukraine “deserves” U.S. and European support, but combining it with the continuing resolution would mean ignoring concerns over “the glaring lack of fiscal responsibility and questions regarding the appropriateness of the proposed aid,” Heritage Action Vice President Garrett Bess told Defense News in a statement.
Not all Republicans agree. Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee who is due to retire at the end of the year, told reporters on Thursday he wants the Ukraine aid package included in the continuing resolution, even as he hopes to keep other riders on the bill to a minimum.
House GOP Conference Policy Committee Chairman Gary Palmer, R-Ala., said he’s tried to sway skeptics of Ukraine aid within the caucus.
“The evidence for how effective our support of Ukraine has been is being played out right in front of us,” Palmer said of Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive. “My problem with some people is they have tunnel vision to the degree they cannot see the consequences of inaction. And I think history will judge how we handle this.”
Given the GOP’s internal differences, it’s an open question how future support for Ukraine would play into the party’s post-election agenda. Several party leaders weren’t eager to answer and instead voiced their own support for both the aid and oversight measures.
“I’m not sure of everybody’s position; I’ve been very supportive of Ukraine,” said Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chairman of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm. “We want to make sure the money doesn’t get wasted, and we know we have $30 trillion dollars worth of debt, but I’ve been very supportive of Ukraine aid.”
If passed into law, the new funding would bring the total assistance this year from Congress to Ukraine to more than $67 billion. The last package also required the inspectors general from the Pentagon and State Department to oversee the aid to Kyiv — though it did not create the special inspector general just for Ukraine that Stefanik and others have requested.
“We have a lot of [potential] members who have never been here before, and we want to make sure they get all the briefings. I know there’s concern, rightfully so, about having oversight over those dollars,” Stefanik said. “I’m not going to get ahead of our members before the election, our newly elected members. It’s going to be a conference decision of those new members.”
Republican Rep. Victoria Spartz, a Ukrainian-American lawmaker who has supported robust aid to Kyiv despite her criticisms of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s cabinet, argued a Republican majority would actually provide Ukraine with more military capabilities by winning over skeptics with improved oversight.
“We’ll have better efficiency, better oversight, better weapons,” said Spartz, of Indiana. “It’s not just good for the American people, but accountability will be better for the Ukrainian people because we’ll make sure that aid does get to the front line.”
Key Democrats also say they’re confident in congressional support, whatever the outcome of midterm elections. Last week, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., expressed concerns that public support might wane, but on Wednesday, amid news of Ukraine’s stunning counteroffensive, he said future aid is not in doubt.
“No, I don’t think so, because particularly with this latest success, not only are we doing the right thing, the Ukrainians are using our aid effectively, successfully,” Reed said. “If the Russians prevail, then they won’t stop at Ukraine and that raises the possibility of conflict with us and with NATO. I think that perception as well as respect for the Ukrainian people is strong.”
Visiting Ukrainian civil society leaders, who were due to meet this week with lawmakers and Biden administration officials, spoke at length about needed anti-corruption measures even as they called for more U.S. weaponry ahead of tough winter fighting. But they said when they sought meetings with Republicans who opposed previous aid, they got no response.
“Especially before the midterm election, we wish to see the Ukraine issue unite the Congress and this $11.7 billion, as a new request for Ukraine, be without politicization, adopted in Congress as soon as possible, because this is what we definitely, desperately need in Ukraine to cover our budget needs, to cover our military needs, before the winter season,” Hanna Hopko, a former lawmaker in Ukraine’s Parliament, told reporters at a German Marshall Fund event in Washington on Monday.
Why some are voting no
Among those opponents was Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., the chair of the fiscally hawkish Republican Study Committee. The Republican Study Committee issued a memo this week criticizing the White House request for additional spending in the continuing resolution, including the additional Ukraine aid package, with a note that, “only $7.2 billion of that package” would go toward military aid.
Republicans who voted against the last Ukraine aid supplemental have cited several reasons for their opposition, ranging from arguments that the money is better spent at home to calls for more U.S. attention to the Indo-Pacific to demands for more oversight of the aid.
Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, voted against the last aid package. He wouldn’t rule out further aid for Ukraine, but said the military hardware Washington is sending is depleting the U.S. military and would be of more use on the southern border, defending America’s sovereignty.
“We all want to support Ukraine, OK? There’s a point though that others have to step up,” Williams said. “We can’t continue to send all of our assets to Ukraine. A lot of what we’ve sent to Ukraine should be down at the border.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who voted against the last aid package for Kyiv, arguing the United States should instead increase its military presence in the Pacific, said the ongoing flood of aid is part of the Biden administration’s “nation-building project in Ukraine.”
Hawley noted a Republican majority in the Senate probably wouldn’t be able to stop party leaders from shepherding additional assistance to Ukraine based on his colleagues’ votes on the issue so far. But he said a Republican majority in the House could prove to be an obstacle.
And Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., said he’s “concerned about the lack of accountability” in the $40 billion Ukraine aid supplemental.
“That is the size of my entire state’s budget for a year, and it was put together very quickly,” said Hagerty. “It’s always going to be a concern in terms of fiscal responsibility, of course it is. I want to see the Ukrainian people win, and I want us handling our support in the most responsible manner possible.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul, noted he opposes previous and additional rounds of Ukraine aid, citing the floods and tornadoes his home state has dealt with this year.
“I haven’t met anybody in Kentucky who’s saying,’ Oh please send my money overseas,’” said Paul. “We’re still having trouble with emergency disaster aid.”
In a floor speech Wednesday arguing against Democrats retaining unified control of the government, Paul’s fellow Kentucky senator, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the White House’s new Ukraine request was too small.
Hailing Ukraine’s recent battlefield wins, McConnell said the U.S. must send Kyiv better arms, including the MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System — a surface-to-surface missile made by Lockheed Martin with range that allows it to strike inside Russia.
“The Ukrainians need more of the weapons we’ve been giving them. They need to start getting them faster and they also need new capabilities like long-range ATACMS, larger drones and tanks,” McConnell said. “Not all of these weapons need to come from America. Make no mistake, our allies are looking to us for signals.”
Asked afterward whether Congress could continue providing aid to Ukraine if Republicans were to take the House or Senate, McConnell downplayed the rift.
“There are a few voices on the right that seem to oppose the war, but the vast majority of us, certainly including myself, think defeating the Russians in Ukraine is high-priority,” McConnell told Defense News.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.