WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Tuesday vowed that Congress would include more assistance for Ukraine as part of the annual government funding bill.
But it’s unclear whether she can actually make that happen amid growing opposition to additional Ukraine aid from House Republicans and a recent push from within her own caucus to jumpstart diplomatic engagement with Russia.
“Congress has secured over $60 billion in security, economic, humanitarian and budget assistance for Ukraine,” Pelosi said in Croatia at the first parliamentary summit for Ukraine’s Crimea platform. “And more will be on the way when we pass our omnibus funding bill this fall.”
Her pledge came after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., indicated in an interview last week that the House would be less likely to pass generous Ukraine aid packages should his party win the November midterm elections.
“People are going to be sitting in a recession, and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” McCarthy told Punchbowl News. “Ukraine is important, but at the same time it can’t be the only thing they do, and it can’t be a blank check.”
Congress in March approved its first $13.6 billion Ukraine supplemental aid package. Lawmakers tripled that funding in May through a $40 billion package of military, economic and food aid for Ukraine and U.S. allies, with 57 House Republicans and 11 GOP senators voting against it. The third $12.35 billion Ukraine aid package was passed last month as part of the continuing resolution to fund the government through December 16.
While McCarthy also told Punchbowl News that he hopes to avoid a government funding battle if Republicans take the House, he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are already coming under pressure from the conservative House Freedom Caucus to block Democrats from passing any omnibus spending bill – which would include Pelosi’s proposed Ukraine funding – in the lame duck period before January.
Whether or not Pelosi can pass a government funding bill and accompanying Ukraine aid package depends largely on McConnell because Senate Democrats will need 10 Republican votes to overcome the filibuster and pass any legislation. And McConnell has not weighed in on the Freedom Caucus’ demands.
However, McConnell put out a statement on Friday doubling down on his support for Ukraine aid and vowing that a Republican Senate would provide more aggressive packages than what President Joe Biden has asked for – potentially putting him at direct odds with a Republican House under McCarthy.
“A Republican majority in the Senate will focus its oversight on ensuring timely delivery of needed weapons and greater allied assistance to Ukraine,” McConnell wrote.
He argued that the Biden administration and NATO “need to do more to supply the tools Ukraine needs to thwart Russian aggression.”
“It is obvious this must include additional air defenses, long-range fires and humanitarian and economic support to help this war-torn country endure the coming winter,” he wrote in the statement.
Russia Diplomacy Push
Biden told reporters last week that he is “worried” about McCarthy’s comments and proceeded to blast the Republican leader at a political fundraiser in Philadelphia.
“It’s a lot bigger than Ukraine,” Biden told Democratic donors. “It’s Eastern Europe. It’s NATO. It’s really serious, serious consequential outcomes.”
The president has also come under pressure from the left flank of his party to jumpstart diplomatic negotiations with Russia, with 29 Democrats signing onto a letter to Biden spearheaded by Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., on Monday.
“We urge you to pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire,” the 30 Democrats – all of whom have voted in favor of Ukraine aid – wrote in the letter, first obtained by the Washington Post.
But on Tuesday Jayapal issued a statement retracting the letter, claiming that it was first drafted over the summer before staffers sent it to the White House this week without vetting.
“Because of the timing, our message is being conflated by some as being equivalent to the recent statement by [McCarthy] threatening an end to aid to Ukraine if Republicans take over,” Jayapal said in the retraction statement.
National Security Council strategic communications adviser John Kirby on Monday blamed Putin for the lack of diplomacy and said the U.S. would not engage Russia without Ukraine.
“It’s clear Mr. Putin is in no mood to negotiate,” Kirby told reporters on a press call. “We understand that. We have said from the very beginning of this that nothing about Ukraine will happen without Ukraine. In other words, we’re not going to have conversations with Russian leadership without the Ukrainian speakers, and that remains the policy and the approach.
A Pentagon report submitted to Congress in May, as required under the $40 billion Ukraine supplemental, downplayed the need for a diplomatic strategy and instead outlined the Biden administration’s focus on Russia sanctions, arming Kyiv and bolstering NATO’s eastern flank.
The report stressed that the Biden administration would defer to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on diplomatic matters but noted that “diplomacy requires both sides engaging in good faith to deescalate, and we have seen no signs Vladimir Putin is prepared to stop the onslaught of atrocities.”
The progressive Democrats who signed the now-retracted letter acknowledged “the difficulties involved in engaging Russia given its outrageous and illegal invasion of Ukraine” but called for pursuing “every diplomatic avenue” to end the war.
“Such a framework would presumably include incentives to end hostilities, including some form of sanctions relief, and bring together the international community to establish security guarantees for a free and independent Ukraine that are acceptable for all parties, particularly Ukrainians,” they wrote.
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.