WASHINGTON ― Pro-Ukraine lawmakers are strategizing on how to pass another Ukraine aid package through Congress despite an increasingly unfriendly Republican caucus that has plunged into chaos following the ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Numerous House Republicans are floating the idea of tying Ukraine aid to more border security funding, if they’re open to the idea at all. Meanwhile, the Senate is leaning toward passing a full-year package for Kyiv, a strategy that would insulate Ukraine from next year’s U.S. elections but come with a huge up-front price tag.
It’s also unclear when the House will resume conducting any business, Ukraine-related or otherwise, as the race to replace McCarthy as speaker begins in earnest. And at least two would-be speakers have a staunch record of opposing Ukraine aid.
“We need to do it quickly,” Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, told Defense News shortly after McCarthy’s ouster on Tuesday. “And instead we’re focusing on internecine fights that don’t help the Republicans.”
Wicker noted that the main challenge would be getting a supplemental assistance package for Ukraine on the House floor, at which point he expects it would pass with two-thirds support in both chambers.
“There’s always been a tendency for isolationism,” said Wicker. “Within the House Republicans and Senate Republicans there is still majority support for fulfilling our obligation and helping Ukraine diminish the Russian military. There’s still strong support.”
In one of McCarthy’s last acts as speaker, he dropped $6 billion of Ukraine aid from the Senate’s stopgap funding bill needed to avoid a government shutdown. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed to McCarthy for additional aid when he last visited Capitol Hill in September, warning lawmakers that Ukraine would lose the war without the assistance.
McCarthy has previously voted for Ukraine aid and reiterated his condemnation of Russia’s invasion in a press conference on Tuesday following his ouster. But roughly half the House Republican caucus now opposes a fifth Ukraine aid package. This makes it politically perilous for any GOP leader to put Ukraine aid on the floor, even if a super-majority of Congress still supports it.
Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas, a Republican defense appropriator who supports Ukraine aid, told Defense News shortly after McCarthy’s ouster that he expects Ukraine aid to factor into the speakership race.
“All attention right now is on us,” said Womack. “We’ve got to go figure it out. We’ve got to find a leader.”
Three conservatives have already expressed interest in becoming speaker: Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Okla., chairman of the Republican Study Committee. Other candidates could jump in during the days ahead as well, consuming the House in a prolonged speakership battle.
Scalise voted in favor of $300 million in Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative funding last week when the House passed it 311-117 after McCarthy stripped it from the defense spending bill in order to win support from the right-wing Freedom Caucus. Jordan, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, voted against the funding, as did Hern.
Some House Republicans have floated additional funding for security on the U.S. southern border in exchange for passing a fifth Ukraine aid package, an idea met with skepticism from Democrats.
“We’ve been trying to do some sort of immigration reform for 25 years, unsuccessfully,” Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, told Defense News. “If you support Ukraine, get us a straight up-or-down vote on something to support them is what we’re pushing.”
Smith said he’s working with House Intelligence Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, who’s trying to rally Republicans for an up-or-down Ukraine vote on the floor.
“If we can’t do that, I think we’ve got to think about a discharge petition,” said Smith.
The House rules package McCarthy agreed to in January to secure his short-lived speakership includes a provision that lets 218 members force a floor vote on legislation, potentially allowing Democrats to force an up-or-down vote on Ukraine aid with just a handful of supportive Republicans. But it’s unclear what sort of rules changes Republicans may seek to enact after they select a new speaker.
There’s no telling how long it may take for the House to get its affairs in order, and the Pentagon will soon run out of the funding and authorities it needs to aid Ukraine.
A one-year Ukraine package?
The Pentagon says it can still use $5.5 billion from prior fiscal years to continue transferring weapons to Ukraine from U.S. stockpiles and another $1.6 billion to replenish weapons Washington has already sent Kyiv. The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it would send Ukraine more than one million rounds of ammunition seized from Iran.
“What I’m hearing is they basically have enough money to continue providing weapons and the like for about the next 45 days, but after that the well runs dry,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told Defense News.
Senators are eying a full-year package intended to carry Ukraine through the U.S. election next year and taking it off the House’s plate in 2024. Several Republican presidential candidates, including the frontrunner former President Donald Trump, also oppose Ukraine aid.
Senate Defense Appropriations Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., told Defense News that the Ukraine supplemental the upper chamber intends to pass could have enough funds to last as long as 15 months.
“I don’t think it’s been decided yet,” said Tester. “But if its, it would be best if we did something that went to the end of the fiscal year at a minimum.”
Multiple other senators confirmed to Defense News that they would like to see a full-year Ukraine supplemental.
“A lot of my colleagues on the Republican side would like to see one package, but everything is still in the stage of how long, how much are we going to fund separately the Pentagon for replenishing equipment [for U.S. stockpiles] and separately Ukrainians for their needs,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., told Defense News.
That sticker shock could be high.
Congress passed a cumulative $113 billion in economic and security assistance for Ukraine in 2022 after Russia’s invasion and has yet to appropriate any additional money for Kyiv this year.
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.