Opposition to — or skepticism about — sending more U.S. money to Ukraine has accelerated in the GOP in recent weeks, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) who signaled earlier this month that Republicans would end or limit war spending if they. take control of the House in the middle of next week.
The threat to cut funding marks a sharp turn for a party whose members have almost universally embraced helping Ukraine after Russia invaded in February. Over the past eight months, supporters of former President Donald Trump have joined skeptics of military intervention and anti-Biden forces in the GOP to challenge traditionally hawkish Republicans.
The result is a rare fissure in the GOP, one likely to unfold in a more open battle if Republicans take over Congress and are faced with strong demands from Biden and emotional appeals from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Last week, a group of Republican lawmakers objected to a provision that Democrats inserted into an essential defense authorization bill that would have allowed the Justice Department to send Ukraine millions of dollars in yacht and other assets seized by Russia.
Most Republicans, like Vance and Bolduc, frame their objections in terms of fiscal responsibility, saying the money would be better spent on issues at home. In a few cases, far-right candidates echoed Trump’s praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin and called for a complete cut off of aid.
Biden criticizes Republicans for threatening aid to Ukraine
But the GOP is also home to a large number of old-school hawks who promise to continue providing support to Kiev, and in some cases, are calling on the White House to do even more.
In a sharp break with McCarthy’s comments, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called for just the opposite: He urged the Biden administration “to do more to provide the tools that Ukraine needs to stop Russian aggression,” including additional aid. McConnell said that if the GOP takes over the Senate, the Republican majority will “focus its oversight on ensuring the timely delivery of necessary weapons and greater allied assistance to Ukraine.”
Many Republicans privately expressed skepticism that McCarthy and a Republican-led House cut aid all together, saying his comments likely included some measure of posturing before the midterms. Republican House members who are in line to ascend to powerful committee positions may find themselves trying to thread the needle between insurgents and traditionalists.
Even so, the Republican divisions present a challenge for President Biden, who has worked to hold together a domestic and global coalition to support Ukraine amid rising food and gas prices and a crisis of global hunger. Biden and his top aides said they would support Ukraine “as long as it takes” and would not force Zelensky to the negotiating table.
The large number of Republicans questioning the current role of the United States in the Ukraine conflict is a marked change for a party that is often led by hawks who have fought to spend more money on military efforts.
That sentiment was personified by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former prisoner of war who has strongly advocated for US military interventions in Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. McCain, who often clashed with Trump, died in 2018, silencing an influential voice in Republican foreign policy.
During Trump’s presidency, when the former president has sporadically called on the United States to pull its troops out of Syria or Afghanistan, his sentiments have been quickly brushed aside by Republicans serving under him. Under Biden, however, skepticism about US aid to Ukraine finds a wider constituency in the Republican Party.
That includes a network of younger conservatives, many centered around groups like Concerned Veterans for America and Stand Together, who are trying to redirect the party from its post-9/11 neoconservatism and emphasis on military power projection.
“We don’t think blank checks for Ukraine are what’s best for the security of the United States or Ukraine,” said Dan Caldwell, vice president for foreign policy at Stand Together, a group backed by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch.
Caldwell, like some progressive lawmakers across the aisle, called on the Biden administration to play a bigger role in advocating a negotiated end to the conflict sooner rather than later. “It is immoral to continue to encourage people to fight a war that we don’t think they can win,” he said.
Democrats have largely been united behind aid to Ukraine, although a group of 30 progressive lawmakers last week sent a letter to the White House urging Biden to pursue direct negotiations with Russia and begin work on a diplomatic path to end the war. They called on Biden to pair the unprecedented economic and military support the United States is providing Ukraine with a “proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to find a realistic framework for a ceasefire.”
But the leader of the effort, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), announced the letter less than 24 hours later after a fierce blow from her fellow Democrats, expressing unwavering support for Biden’s approach to the war.
Democrats, as well as Republicans, have said that part of the GOP skepticism about aid to Ukraine stems from opposition to Biden. A central pillar of his presidency has been the effort to assemble a coalition of Western leaders who have implemented severe sanctions against Russia and maintained support for Ukraine even as their countries have incurred serious economic disruptions.
“There is an element of Republican hostility to Ukraine that stems from their hatred for Joe Biden,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “In the beginning, the Republicans were willing to support Ukraine, but as Joe Biden has had more success in defending Ukraine and more of his identity is attached to defending Ukraine, it attracts Republican hostility because they simply can’t stomach being on the Ukraine. same side as Joe Biden on something.”
However, Congress has so far provided almost all the aid and weapons the White House has requested — to the tune of more than $60 billion — with overwhelming bipartisan support. Even if Republicans take control of both chambers, the challenge for Biden will be much greater in the House, which will have a significant number of insurgents aligned with Trump.
Some Republicans have said that the desire to scrutinize the billions in aid suddenly rushing out the door is entirely reasonable.
“I think what these statements reflect is that the aid is not a blank check and it is not unlimited, but it is very different from saying: ‘We will cut you off and hand you over to Putin’s dogs,'” said Whit. Ayres, a poll GOP. “It is inconceivable that there could be a significant majority of the entire House, Democrats and Republicans, who want to abandon Ukraine to the deceptions of Vladimir Putin.”
Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee if the GOP takes his cue, said he fully supports the war effort and signaled no change in Republican support for the help and weapons packages.
“Ukrainians alone must decide the future of Ukraine. I support their fight for freedom, which they win on the battlefield,” Risch said in a statement to the Washington Post. “Any effort to appease Putin is dangerous, irresponsible and will only encourage Russia’s aggression.”
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), who is soon to become the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, tried to incorporate elements of traditionalists and insurgents, saying Bloomberg TV wants more powerful weapons sent to Ukraine, but also “more oversight and accountability regarding funding.”
Some interested Republicans favor a measure drafted by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) earlier this year that would appoint an inspector general to oversee how Ukraine’s funds are spent. Paul failed to attach legislation to the $40 billion Ukraine package, but he shared his ideas on Ukraine oversight in a closed-door meeting with House lawmakers in May, an exchange that it could bear fruit the year after Republicans take control of the House.
Democrats have argued that the money is desperately needed as Ukrainians battle a ruthless Russian enemy, and that imposing traditional oversight rules will only hurt Ukraine.
“There is no information that suggests any of these dollars are being misused, and the priority is speed,” Murphy said. “You have to take the money out the door, so absent evidence of abuse of the dollars, I don’t know why we will punish the Ukrainians by slowing down the whole process.”
Polls have shown domestic support for Ukraine softening, particularly among Republicans. In March, 9 percent of Republicans and independents said the United States provides too much aid to Ukraine, according to a Pew Research Center poll. In a follow-up survey this fall, that figure rose to 32 percent.
In top Republican circles, the debate over aid to Ukraine is increasingly vigorous. In late October, former Vice President Mike Pence tried to rally support behind aid to Ukraine in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a well-known conservative think tank. “Conservatives need to make it clear that Putin must stop and Putin will pay,” Pence said.
But after the speech, a handful of prominent Republicans publicly chastised the former vice president. Heritage Chairman Kevin Roberts issued a rejoinder saying Republicans should be “on guard against any attempt to spend more money recklessly.”
“Biden owes the American people a concrete strategy about our future role that doesn’t leave us mired in a state of perpetual conflict management funded by the American taxpayer,” Roberts said.
And former Pence staffer Russ Vought, who was also Trump’s budget chief, told C-SPAN that he disagreed with Pence’s remarks.
“I have great respect for my old boss, but when we’re spending $54 billion to support Ukraine, that’s more than any major department in the federal government,” Vought said.