Skip to content
Future Ukraine Aid at Risk
Go to my account

Future Ukraine Aid at Risk

Plus: Why do showdowns between the GOP and their own speakers keep happening?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer walk with President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky on September 21, 2023, in the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Majorities in both chambers of Congress support sending more financial aid to Ukraine. But you’d be forgiven for thinking the opposite is true after leaders in the House and Senate stripped out around $6 billion in Ukraine aid from the bill that kept the government from shutting down late last month.

As the fighting in Ukraine drags on and another spending deadline in the United States looms, most members of Congress are considering how to get more money for the war effort across the finish line. Doing so would have been a challenge even when former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy held the gavel. Now the prospects are even murkier.

A vocal minority of Republicans have insisted that American dollars should be tied to domestic issues rather than assisting Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s unprovoked and brutal war. American voters—especially Republicans—increasingly believe that too, so it’s grown more fraught for rank-and-file GOP lawmakers to argue otherwise. In July, only 70 Republicans voted for Rep. Matt Gaetz’s amendment to decrease aid to Ukraine. That number grew to 104 last Wednesday during a vote on an amendment that would have cut $300 million in military training assistance to Ukraine. The amendment failed, but GOP leadership made a last-minute decision to send the bill back to the Rules Committee and strip out the money anyway.

“People are just scared of the narrative or scared of the gotcha,” one Republican congressman, granted anonymity to speak candidly, told The Dispatch. He said Republican voters believe the assistance is an outsize share of the United States’ military spending, even though it represents just a “blip” in the Pentagon’s budget.

Around $5 billion for Ukraine remains from aid Congress previously approved, leading the White House to request $24 billion in supplemental military aid over the summer. Since 2021, the United States has sent $44.5 billion in military assistance to Ukraine according to the State Department. When including humanitarian and economic assistance, the total amount of U.S. aid to Ukraine is closer to $75 billion, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a German research institute. That total does not include war-related spending for other allies. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget clocks all congressional appropriations related to Ukraine, which includes spending to other allies, to be $113 billion. The United States spent $766 billion on America’s national defense in fiscal year 2022 alone.

It’s clear former President Donald Trump’s pick for the House speakership, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, is critical of sending more aid to Ukraine. Jordan voted against the $300 million in aid for Ukraine that was pulled from a defense spending bill last month and told reporters this week that “the most pressing issue on Americans’ minds is not Ukraine” before saying he wouldn’t put a new Ukraine aid package on the floor if elected speaker. His office later walked it back, saying Jordan wants more information on how the money is being spent.

Rep. Michael McCaul, a defense hawk, summarized what Jordan told fellow Republicans during a closed door meeting: “He told us that it would be something that we would deal with, but we want the border security, that piece first, and that would have to be part of the negotiation.”

Ukraine aid will be one of the most pertinent issues for Republicans next week as they work to elect a new speaker. Firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia has already vowed not to back any speaker who supports aid to the war-torn country. And assuming all Democrats vote against a Republican speaker, a candidate can only afford to lose a handful of GOP votes on the House floor, meaning the conference will have to be almost completely unified around their pick for the gavel.

Given how splintered the House majority party has been this Congress, President Joe Biden, who plans to give a speech arguing that supporting Ukraine is within the United States’ national interest, said the situation “does worry me.”

To keep military aid flowing to Ukraine, some supporters in the House have suggested pairing it with something more palatable to GOP skeptics: measures cracking down on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“If you could give us some kind of serious border security package, we’d be willing to negotiate on Ukraine aid,” said one House staffer for a rank-and-file GOP member who previously voted against more Ukraine aid. “That’s the critique you get from people all the time, when my boss goes back to the district. … Why are we sending money to Ukraine when we can’t secure our own border?”

Tying the two would “unite our conference for the ones that have been lukewarm on Ukraine,” added Sen. Mike Braun, an Indiana Republican.

Democrats appear open to the idea, with Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut telling reporters Wednesday that combining border measures with Ukraine aid is “one of the likely paths” to passage.

“It’s a false way of framing to say there is a choice between protecting the southern border or Ukraine,” Dalibor Rohac, a U.S.-European relations expert at the American Enterprise Institute, tells The Dispatch. “But the way of neutralizing that argument is to actually address both of the issues at the same time.”

That said, immigration and border security are consistently some of the thorniest issues in Congress, and it’s not yet clear what specific provisions would be part of any such compromise. Combining border security and Ukraine aid, therefore, may ultimately be a way to kill both efforts. On Wednesday, Heritage Action—the advocacy arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation—said in a statement lawmakers should reject pairing border measures with “increasingly controversial U.S. funding for” Ukraine.

Then there’s the influence a new speaker will have on the issue. “All of this is contingent on a speaker who is also not radical on immigration,” Josh Huder of Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute tells The Dispatch. “I don’t think Jim Jordan is going to want to advance a package that the Biden administration or Senate Democrats and Republicans are interested in.”

GOP proponents of more Ukraine aid could circumvent the new speaker altogether by joining Democrats on a parliamentary procedure known as a discharge petition, which would allow rank-and-file members to force a vote on Ukraine aid. The move requires signatures from a majority of lawmakers in the House, and it’s a somewhat slow process: A bill has to stew in committee for at least 30 legislative days before a discharge petition can be filed, and, if it reaches 218 signatures, it must wait another seven legislative days before a lawmaker could advance it toward a floor vote.

Only a handful of bills have reached the House floor via discharge petition, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, and the process has historically been used to pressure reluctant leaders to move on legislation like civil rights measures.

But first the House must have a new speaker, and the clock is ticking. Another government funding deadline is coming up in November.

“It’s not like they’re just going to elect a speaker on a Thursday and go right back to business as usual,” Sen. Markwayne Mullin, an Oklahoma Republican, told reporters. “It’s going to take a while to get the train back on the tracks.”

Why Would Anyone Want to Lead House Republicans?

Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy may have been the first speaker in history to be removed from office by a vote of the chamber, but he’s certainly not the first speaker hardline members have run out of town in recent years.

Former Speaker John Boehner stepped down amid fire from his right flank in 2015, and former Speaker Paul Ryan had a tortured relationship with the House Freedom Caucus during the early years of the Trump presidency. With the 118th Congress’ extraordinarily slim margins, it’s easier than ever for a few rabble rousers to make trouble for GOP leaders.

The incentives driving people like Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz aren’t going to change any time soon, Arizona Rep. David Schweikert, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus who quit the group earlier this year, tells The Dispatch. Many far-right rebellions relate to debt and government spending—an issue so massive and longstanding it’s difficult for any one congressional leader to resolve.

And lawmakers have increasingly relied on small-dollar donors to fund their campaigns. That means members who are popular with the base aren’t dependent on the party to finance their reelection, removing one point of leverage congressional leaders used to enjoy. Gaetz demonstrated that dynamic, using his showdown with McCarthy this week to send fundraising emails and texts to supporters.

Gaetz claimed on the House floor ahead of the vote to oust McCarthy that the GOP conference is beholden to wealthy donors and special interests, but Schweikert argued it’s the opposite: “Gaetz was actually proving it by fundraising while he was making his speech. His special interest is, ‘If I say something inflammatory enough, I can get 1,000 people to send me $50.’”

It makes sense for him to follow those motivations. Liam Donovan, a lobbyist at Bracewell LLP and former GOP operative, wrote Friday morning that “everyone involved acted rationally, almost clinically so, according to their respective incentives.”

“Changing the rules of the House is a start,” he said. “But so long as voters continue to channel their frustrations with Washington by sending people committed to burning it down, the cycle of dysfunction will continue.”

Of Note

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.