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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

House Republicans split over aid for Ukraine, casting doubt on war effort

Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee in October.  (Jabin Botsford/Washington Post)

WASHINGTON – When President Joe Biden gave his State of the Union address in March 2022, five days after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, the Republicans and Democrats who filled the chamber showed nearly unanimous support for Kyiv’s defense.

Twenty months later, that tone has changed. While most members of Congress still voice support for Ukrainians, a rift among the Republicans who control the House of Representatives has emerged and cast doubt on the prospects of passing even a fraction of the $61 billion of additional aid Biden requested for Ukraine in October.

Cracks had started to emerge in the House GOP by the time Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a surprise trip to the Capitol to address a joint session of Congress in December 2022. Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents the western half of Idaho, said at the time he was “not comfortable with burdening the American taxpayer” with more aid without proof that the money was being well spent.

The outlook for Ukraine has been complicated by the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks on Israeli civilians and Israel’s retaliatory bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip, which prompted Biden to ask Congress for $14 billion in extra aid to Israel. In an interview at the Capitol on Wednesday, Fulcher said he now hears a clear message from his constituents in North Idaho.

“They’re done,” he said. “They’re done with that. Not so much Israel, but Ukraine, yeah.”

While Biden and congressional Democrats have sought to pair Ukraine and Israel aid in a single bill, Fulcher said the two countries are “apples and oranges.” He called Israel “truly an ally and a partner,” while saying Ukraine is merely “of mutual interest.”

“I don’t want to see – and I don’t think most people want to see – the Soviet band get back together,” Fulcher said. “But it’s not like we’ve had this longstanding allegiance with Ukraine and they’re this upstanding democracy and we get a lot of benefit out of the relationship, other than not seeing Russia expand.”

The United States has sent $44 billion in military aid to Ukraine since the war began, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Total U.S. aid to Ukraine since the invasion, including financial and humanitarian assistance, neared $77 billion as of the end of July, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a German research institute.

That figure doesn’t include some other spending related to the war, such as aid to other U.S. allies, which added up to $113 billion in 2022 alone, according to the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

In surveys conducted by Gallup, the share of Republican voters who said the United States was “doing too much to help Ukraine” rose from 43% in August 2022 to 62% in October 2023. The share of Democratic voters who say the same has risen from 9% to 14% over that period.

That sentiment has been channeled by Republicans who represent deep-red districts, such as Wyoming Rep. Harriet Hageman, who said in an interview Wednesday that without more proof that U.S. taxpayers’ money is being used effectively in Ukraine, “It is just literally taking money, billions of dollars, and lighting it on fire.”

Rep. Adam Smith of Bellevue, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday that there are already oversight mechanisms in place to track how U.S. money gets used in Ukraine. While he welcomes serious proposals for improving that oversight, Smith said the fact that newly elected Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., hasn’t brought a Ukraine aid bill to the House floor suggests that something else is at play.

“At the end of the day, the unsaid thing here is Trump doesn’t like Ukraine,” Smith said, suggesting the former president is still mad that Zelenskyy rebuffed his demands to help look for dirt on Biden ahead of the 2020 election. That pressure campaign was the basis for the first of Trump’s two impeachments.

Calling the GOP “a wholly owned subsidiary of Donald Trump,” Smith said Republicans are making excuses to launder a personal gripe. “Meanwhile, Ukraine is hanging on by their fingernails. We need to help them and we need a vote.

“You’re trying to work a political problem whereby Trump has put you in a difficult situation. And meanwhile, Ukraine is hanging on by their fingernails. We need to help them and we need a vote.”

In a largely symbolic vote in September, roughly half of House Republicans opposed sending about $300 million in additional aid to Kyiv, while no Democrat voted against it. Fulcher voted no, while fellow GOP Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane, Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside and Mike Simpson of Idaho Falls voted in favor.

Despite that overwhelming support for aid to Ukraine, and similar bipartisan support in the Senate, it is unclear whether Johnson will bring a bill up for a vote. Under an informal convention called the “Hastert Rule” – named for former House Speaker and convicted felon Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. – a speaker may decline to bring legislation to the floor unless a majority of the majority party supports it.

In an interview, Newhouse voiced support for additional aid to Ukraine while echoing the call for transparency about how U.S. dollars are spent there and in Israel.

“I support both countries, and I think it’s a good strategic move on our part to support them,” Newhouse said.

McMorris Rodgers, a close ally of Johnson, said Wednesday the speaker was working with senators and the White House to craft a bill that pairs aid to Ukraine with funding and policy changes to improve security along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“There’s a desire in the House for Ukraine funding and border to be tied together, and that seems to be more the direction that we’re going right now,” the Spokane Republican said.

In response to questions, her office reiterated that McMorris Rodgers has supported four previous aid packages for Ukraine and she wants to know how that money has been spent – and how additional funds would be used – before supporting further aid.

On Nov. 2, House Republicans passed a bill that would give $14 billion in aid to Israel while cutting $14 billion Democrats had previously sent to the Internal Revenue Service to crack down on tax evasion by large corporations and the richest Americans. Republicans have argued that any additional spending should be offset by cuts to programs they don’t like, although the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated cutting that IRS funding would actually increase the federal deficit by more than $26 billion over 10 years by reducing the agency’s ability to collect taxes.

“I was really pleased that the speaker led by identifying a way to pay for the additional funds that we’re committing to Israel,” McMorris Rodgers said of the IRS cut. “I believe that is a good approach and we should be doing that more often.”

Democrats have argued that demanding budget cuts in exchange for aid to a U.S. ally sets a dangerous precedent, injecting politics into an issue that has traditionally been considered off limits. But Newhouse said, “I think the precedent we are setting is fiscal responsibility. I think that’s pretty important, too.”

In a statement, Simpson called for the Senate to pass the House bill – which Democrats have said is dead on arrival in the upper chamber – and said aid to Ukraine must be paired with policy changes and additional funding for border security.

In the Senate, GOP support for Ukraine has been steadier. In his opening statement during a hearing on Ukraine on Wednesday, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, linked Russia’s invasion with the attack by Hamas on Israel.

“It’s important for this committee, and the American people, to fully understand how Russia’s war in Ukraine affects American security,” Risch said, before drawing a connection between Russia, Iran and China.

“It is more and more evident that our enemies are working together against the United States and our allies. They have the same basic goal: to undermine American leadership and eliminate the basic freedoms that have helped the entire world prosper.”