WASHINGTON ― Republican Sens. Deb Fischer and Mitt Romney walked side by side Tuesday as they hastily left the Biden administration’s classified briefing on a massive defense spending package that includes Ukraine and Israel aid, both visibly agitated.
Fischer of Nebraska and Romney of Utah were among numerous Republicans to exit the briefing early. By their account, administration officials did not provide answers to their questions on Ukraine beyond what’s publicly available in unclassified public reports, compounding their frustration with Democrats for refusing to meet their demands for immigration policy changes in the legislation.
The unrelated partisan fight over immigration policy threatens to derail the roughly $113 billion package that also includes funding for the U.S. southern border and Indo-Pacific security partners, all while the Biden administration rapidly runs out of the little remaining Ukraine aid. It raises serious questions about whether Congress will continue providing aid to Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion despite previous Senate Republican support for a a bipartisan defense supplemental package.
“We’ve had it,” Fischer said. “When you have Deb Fischer who’s upset about this, they better be worried. Because I have backed everything.”
Fischer, who sits on the Armed Services and Appropriations committees, has championed aid to Kyiv despite mounting House Republican opposition. She vented to reporters about her misgivings following the briefing — some of which extended beyond the immigration debate and marked Ukraine policy grievances set in motion months ago.
“The point is there’s no answer to any questions down there,” Fischer told Defense News, criticizing the Biden administration for requesting Ukraine aid via a supplemental rather than in its base budget proposal earlier this year. “They should have realized the issues. We’ve been very aware of the issues that we have in Ukraine with our own munitions.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was expected to address senators at the briefing via video but had to cancel, though it was unclear why. During a visit to Washington in September, he warned senators that Ukraine will lose the war if foreign assistance does not continue.
The Biden administration has less than $5 billion in presidential drawdown authority to continue transferring weapons to Ukraine from U.S. stockpiles and $1 billion to replenish weapons it’s already sent.
The director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, Shalanda Young, said Monday in a letter to congressional leaders that the administration would run out of these funds by the end of the year.
“Frankly after the last few minutes, I’m beginning to worry about the supplemental passing at all before the first of the year,” Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee and another Ukraine aid proponent, said after the briefing.
Wicker, who stayed for most of the briefing, told Defense News he found the administration’s answers lacking on its previous reluctance to send certain munitions — complaints pro-Ukraine Republicans have had for more than a year.
“That said, we very much need to pass a supplemental assisting our Israeli friends, our Ukrainian friends, getting ready for deterring war in the Pacific, and addressing our southern border, and part and parcel to our defense needs is the very inadequate submarine-industrial base,” Wicker argued.
‘A Russian city or Ukrainian city?’
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Tuesday that House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., informed him in a phone call last week that he would not advance Ukraine aid if it does not include a hard-line immigration bill House Republicans passed earlier this year.
Nonetheless, Schumer has scheduled the first procedural vote on the behemoth supplemental package for Wednesday. But that vote is expected to fail after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the Republican caucus will vote against it without the immigration policy changes the party is demanding.
Notably, McConnell has spent most of the last year making the case for Ukraine aid to critics in his party and had previously supported a defense spending supplemental with the assistance to bypass the $886 billion caps laid out in the May debt ceiling agreement.
Heritage Action, the lobbying wing of the conservative Heritage Foundation, sent a letter to Johnson on Tuesday asking him to “strongly oppose” the Ukraine aid. The letter calls for no more assistance unless the Biden administration “provides a plan that defines the end goal in Ukraine, describes the expected U.S. commitment to achieve that goal, addresses the effects of the presidential drawdown authority on U.S. capabilities and assures further commitments from our European partners.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said that “a cynic would say the goal here is to take down Ukraine funding.”
“We are making the decision right now as to whether Kyiv is a Russian city or Ukrainian city,” Murphy told Defense News. “My level of frustration about the lack of seriousness from Republicans is due to the stakes that we are dealing with. And the stakes are whether Ukraine exists 12 months from now or is a part of Russia.”
The Senate’s proposed bill would provide $13.5 billion to continue arming Ukraine through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. It allocates another $15.1 billion for the Defense Department to continue supporting Kyiv with military training, intelligence sharing and “an increased presence in the European Command area of responsibility,” per a Senate summary of the bill.
On top of that, the bill appropriates $24.5 billion to replenish weapons that the U.S. has already sent to Ukraine and Israel through its stockpiles. It also sets aside another $15.3 billion in Israel military aid and $2.8 billion to increase capacity for the munitions-industrial base.
The bill does not place conditions on aid to Israel despite conversations among Senate Democrats about doing so last week.
It also allocates $3 billion at Wicker’s insistence to help prepare the beleaguered submarine-industrial base for the trilateral AUKUS agreement that would see the U.S. and Britain help Australia build a nuclear-powered submarine fleet. Wicker has promised to hold up two key AUKUS authorizations from the annual defense policy bill unless Congress appropriates that funding.
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.