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How Washington soured on Ukraine

The Senate is done voting for the year, and Congress will return on Jan. 8. The chamber cleared a short-term FAA reauthorization until March 8 on Tuesday night.

In May 2022, just three months after Russia launched a brutal invasion of Ukraine, 368 House members and 86 senators voted to send $40 billion to Ukraine.

It was an overwhelming message to the world that the vast majority of Congress was standing with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in his quest to beat back Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. (Future Speaker Mike Johnson was one of the no votes.)

But in the intervening 19 months, Washington has cooled on Ukraine — a trend driven by Republicans. Public support for the war effort has steadily dropped. World attention shifted to the Oct. 7 terror attacks and Israel’s brutal battle with Hamas in Gaza. Lawmakers have left town now without approving any new Ukraine aid since the end of 2022. This would have been unthinkable just a short time ago.

Ukraine, for the moment, has lost Washington. But there were numerous warning signs along the way.

1) No “blank check.” On Oct. 17, 2022, we were traveling with then-House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for a campaign swing. McCarthy issued a significant warning — Congress wasn’t going to rubber stamp President Joe Biden’s requests for new Ukraine funding if Republicans won the House that November.

McCarthy was reflecting a reality inside the growing isolationist wing of the House Republican Conference. GOP lawmakers, influenced by former President Donald Trump, were souring on foreign intervention. Especially Ukraine.

At the time, Biden said he was “worried” Ukraine aid could be curtailed by a House Republican majority. In response, the lame-duck House Democratic majority — with the help of Senate leadership — secured $45 billion for Ukraine in the year-end funding package following a dramatic Zelensky speech to Congress.

The United States has spent $100 billion-plus on the conflict, including more than $75 billion in economic, military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine.

2) Stop-gap misses. Congress passed — and Biden signed — two continuing resolutions during 2023 to avoid government shutdowns. Despite Biden’s requests for tens of billions of dollars in new funding — and a resurgent Russian war effort — both CRs excluded Ukraine.

In September, McCarthy devised the strategy of trying to extract border concessions from Biden in exchange for new Ukraine aid — a story we broke Sept. 7.

In doing so, McCarthy made clear that Ukraine funding was going to come at a price.

After averting the September government shutdown, McCarthy was booted from the speakership. Johnson, long a Ukraine skeptic, was next to take the gavel following a brutal internal House GOP fight. In his “two-step” CR plan to avoid a mid-November shutdown, Johnson left out new Ukraine funding.

And a highly anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive failed to make major gains despite huge Ukrainian casualties and an influx of new Western weapons.

3) The September slip-up. In one of his final acts as speaker, McCarthy was forced to strip $300 million in aid to help train Ukrainians from the Pentagon funding bill. Instead of including it in the bill, McCarthy held a separate vote.

Most of the headlines after the vote blared that Congress “overwhelmingly” passed $300 million for Ukraine. This masked the real problem.

The signal here was that 117 Republicans voted against the relatively paltry sum. These “no” votes laid bare that a clear majority of House Republicans opposed continuing to support Ukraine. This was another warning that passing new assistance would be a herculean challenge for Biden and GOP defense hawks.

At the time, House Republicans said that they wanted more information on how Biden and top aides viewed the war ending. The administration continued to brief lawmakers, but this wasn’t enough for many Republicans.

4) The White House. On July 12, as Republicans were weakening on Ukraine, Biden was projecting extreme confidence on the world stage. During a trip to Lithuania for a NATO summit, Biden said this:

The White House said repeatedly that a majority of Congress favors Ukraine aid. But that metric doesn’t matter much in the modern-day House especially. McCarthy understood he had a growing block of Republicans who were opposed. Biden was making a promise he wasn’t sure he could keep.

In August, Biden asked Congress for $24 billion in new Ukraine funding as part of a larger package that included border security money. This didn’t go anywhere.

In October — with McCarthy out of the speakership — the White House sent a massive supplemental spending request for the year-end legislative rush. That proposal again included both border security and Ukraine aid as national-security priorities.

Lumping the two issues together allowed Republicans to say the White House agreed that they should move in tandem. This is where we are today. Some top Democrats have since said it was a mistake for the White House to link them.

Then there’s the question of the speed with which the White House got serious about the negotiations. To their credit, both Johnson and McCarthy were pretty clear in their objective — to pair border security and Ukraine. The White House didn’t engage heavily in the Hill talks on the supplemental until late in the process.

5) GOP leadership. Let’s face it — Republican leaders on the Hill did very little to push back on the burgeoning anti-Ukraine movement inside their party. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the floor on a near-daily basis to make the case for Ukraine, but it didn’t change many minds. Trump’s looming lead among 2024 GOP presidential contenders didn’t help either.

Much of McConnell’s frustration stemmed from his belief that Biden wasn’t doing enough publicly in making the pro-Ukraine case, and that this was contributing to the belief among some Republicans that Ukraine couldn’t win the war.

At the September funding deadline, McConnell kept pushing for even a small amount of Ukraine funding, only to be outnumbered by those in his conference who wanted to pass the House GOP’s stopgap bill, which included no additional aid. That’s what ended up happening.

Overall, there’s plenty of blame to go around here. It’s also abundantly clear that the United States, which has led the global coalition to help Ukraine, is at real risk of abandoning Kyiv.

Border talks latest: Ukraine backers did get a small boost on Tuesday night. McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer released a joint statement saying the border-security talks are making enough progress that the Senate could vote on a border-Ukraine-Israel-Taiwan package “early in the new year.”

But there’s no guarantee this will pass the House, especially as the GOP presidential primary formally kicks off in mid-January.

— Jake Sherman, Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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