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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Two years after Russian invasion, fate of U.S. aid for Ukraine lies with House Republicans

WASHINGTON – Saturday marked a grim anniversary for the people of Ukraine, two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion of their country and a decade after the Kremlin invaded and eventually annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, kicking off a bloody imperial project founded on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s belief that Ukraine never should have become its own country.

While the two sides have fought to a virtual stalemate over the past year, support for Ukraine among GOP lawmakers has faded, threatening Kyiv’s main source of military aid. Outgunned Ukrainian forces were forced to retreat from the eastern city of Avdiivka on Feb. 17, underscoring the impact of what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called an “artificial deficit” of weapons that has grown more acute as U.S. aid has dried up.

The Senate approved $60 billion in new aid to Ukraine on Feb. 13, with the support of staunch conservatives like Jim Risch and Mike Crapo of Idaho. In the House, Republicans have largely fallen in line behind presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has echoed Putin’s talking points and publicly encouraged Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to U.S. allies who don’t spend enough to defend themselves.

President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies have spent the past week hammering House Republicans for leaving for a two-week recess without voting on the bill. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington joined the chorus of Democrats on Feb. 16, sending a letter to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers in which he asked the Spokane lawmaker to use her “leadership position” among House Republicans “to push for an immediate vote” on the Senate-passed bill.

McMorris Rodgers left GOP leadership in 2018, but she chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee and is a close ally of Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana, whom she nominated to lead the House’s GOP majority.

Hardline Republicans in the House, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, have threatened to oust Johnson if he compromises with Democrats to pass legislation they oppose. The previous speaker, Kevin McCarthy of California, was unseated by a handful of disgruntled Republicans, and Johnson can afford only two defections after Republicans lost the seat vacated by former Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., on Feb. 13.

In an interview, Inslee said that McMorris Rodgers, who announced Feb. 8 that she won’t run for another term in office, shouldn’t be afraid to publicly call on Johnson to allow a vote on Ukraine aid, because “she no longer has a reason to kowtow to Donald Trump.”

“It’s extremely disappointing to have the leadership of the Republican Party fail in this obligation to stand up for democracy, which we’ve been doing to the tune of billions of dollars already,” Inslee said Feb. 16. “To walk away now and surrender is just an outrage, and I really believe that the congresswoman owes a duty to democracy to continue our support of this effort.”

McMorris Rodgers declined an interview request for this story. In a statement, she reiterated her support for Ukraine aid, of which she has voted to approve a total of $113 billion in four spending packages since the war began.

“It’s true Congress is deeply divided and the future of additional assistance for Ukraine is uncertain, but my strong condemnation of Vladimir Putin’s unlawful invasion has never wavered,” she said. “I have proudly supported the Ukrainian people’s fight for freedom each and every time it came before our chamber, so for anyone to question my integrity on this issue is dishonest and irresponsible.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) speaks during a town hall event hosted by House Republicans ahead of President Joe Bidens first State of the Union address tonight on March 1, 2022 in Washington, DC.  (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) speaks during a town hall event hosted by House Republicans ahead of President Joe Bidens first State of the Union address tonight on March 1, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

She also touted the legislation her committee has advanced to increase U.S. energy production, saying it would help America’s allies reduce their dependence on Russian oil and gas.

Democrats have dismissed those bills as a ploy to deregulate the U.S. energy industry, which is already producing record levels of crude oil and natural gas, according to federal data.

After House lawmakers left the Capitol on Feb. 15, McMorris Rodgers and other committee chairs gathered for a closed-door GOP leadership retreat in Miami, which featured heated exchanges over Ukraine aid, Punchbowl News reported.

A spokesperson for McMorris Rodgers, Kyle VonEnde, didn’t provide an answer when asked if McMorris Rodgers had privately encouraged Johnson to bring a Ukraine aid bill to the House floor.

In a statement, VonEnde shot back at Inslee’s comments, which he said “are unserious and lack merit.”

VonEnde pointed out that the Energy and Commerce Committee plays no role in advancing Ukraine aid, and he said McMorris Rodgers has used her role as the panel’s chair to pass legislation aimed at countering Russia’s ability to “weaponize” its abundant energy resources.

The White House announced a major new set of sanctions against Russia on Friday, coinciding with the war’s anniversary and prompted in part by the death of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Feb. 16. Navalny’s death, under mysterious circumstances in a penal colony where he was imprisoned on charges that human-rights groups dismissed as politically motivated, occurred while Risch and other foreign policy leaders were at the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany.

Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a joint statement with Crapo after the two Idaho senators voted for Ukraine aid in a bill that also includes about $14 billion for Israel and $10 billion for humanitarian aid.

“The United States cannot be the policeman of the world, nor can we engage in every conflict, which is why we must support allies who will stand with us in what is a very dangerous time globally,” Risch and Crapo said. “Although this legislation is not what we would have drafted, it is a strong bill that makes Idaho and America safer – our first responsibility.”

Sen. Jim Risch, right, R-Idaho, meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on June 26, 2022.  (Courtesy of Senate Foreign Relations Committee)
Sen. Jim Risch, right, R-Idaho, meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on June 26, 2022. (Courtesy of Senate Foreign Relations Committee)

When asked if McMorris Rodgers would vote for or against the Senate bill and what amendments, if any, she wants to see before supporting it, VonEnde didn’t answer directly. In the past, she has maintained that additional aid for Ukraine should come with strings attached, including mechanisms to better track how the money is spent.

In a statement, VonEnde said McMorris Rodgers “agrees there are a number of good things in the Senate-passed security supplemental, including strong support for Israel and Ukraine,” but she would prefer to see more oversight measures, such as creating a new inspector general position at the Defense Department to make sure U.S. weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands.

Roughly two-thirds of the $60 billion in Senate-passed Ukraine aid would go to U.S. defense contractors to produce weapons and ammunition, according to the White House. It would also replenish American arms stocks that have been depleted by the war in Ukraine.

“The reality is, however, that Congress does not operate in a vacuum. As dynamics continue shifting, Cathy has remained committed to delivering real results that can help the people of Ukraine right now,” VonEnde said, referring to legislation that would block Biden’s recent move to freeze new applications for new liquified natural gas exports.

In a call with reporters on Feb. 20, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told The Spokesman-Review that House Republicans shouldn’t be able to “hide behind process” and avoid stating their position on Ukraine aid just because the bill hasn’t come up for a vote.

“I think that individual House members have a responsibility to speak out – especially those who have long been on the record supporting Ukraine – speak out and call for a vote,” Sullivan said. “Because if it gets an up-or-down vote, it will pass overwhelmingly, on a bipartisan basis.”

After Senate Republicans revolted against a compromise bill their own leaders had negotiated to pair border security measures with aid to Ukraine and Israel, a bipartisan group of House moderates – including Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez, a southwest Washington Democrat – introduced their own border security and foreign aid proposal on Feb. 16. Sullivan and VonEnde declined to answer directly when asked if the White House and McMorris Rodgers were open to that legislation, which appears unlikely to pass in either the House or Senate.

Valeriy Goloborodko, the Seattle-based honorary consul of Ukraine, has met multiple times with McMorris Rodgers and said the congresswoman expressed to him that despite “tremendous pressure,” she has voted in support of Ukraine aid because she understood that voting against it would effectively mean a vote for Russia.

“I think she has an understanding of what is good and what is evil,” Goloborodko said. “But also, this is an election year and we understand that affects some of the decisions. We just hope that Ukraine is not going to be an object for internal politics.”

The honorary consul said that most of the roughly 100,000 people of Ukrainian heritage who live in Washington state – many of whom are Christians who fled religious persecution around the fall of the Soviet Union – have been more ideologically aligned with Republicans than Democrats. But with waning supports for Ukraine in the GOP, he said, “Many Ukrainians now in this coming election, they are asking themselves and asking their family members, ‘What should we do?’ ”

Drawing on the biblical story of the Exodus, Goloborodko called on Republicans to take a “step of faith” like the Israelites who stepped into the Red Sea as it parted.

“We Ukrainians, we are fighting for values of freedom, of justice, and we want to live,” he said. “Although it may be a political sacrifice for some Republicans to support Ukraine, I know that somewhere deep in their souls they want to support us.”