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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Meets With U.S. Lawmakers On Capitol Hill

Despite overwhelming majorities, no clear path for Ukraine aid

One week after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a plea for additional American aid, a sobering reality has set in on Capitol Hill — Congress has no clear path, as of this moment, to approve new funding for the embattled U.S. ally.

The issue has become tied up in the dispute over government funding, with Speaker Kevin McCarthy refusing to include new Ukraine aid in any stopgap spending measure over fears that a conservative revolt could cost him his post. In some ways, McCarthy’s own standing has become tied to this issue.

Ukraine in general has become such a charged issue for House Republicans that party leaders late Wednesday night stripped a small portion of Ukraine aid from their version of the FY2024 Defense spending bill. That came just hours after the House overwhelmingly defeated an amendment to strip this exact same funding from the bill. The vote was 330-104. Those 104 “no” votes were all Republicans — nearly half the GOP conference.

Think about that — the House voted against removing the funding from the bill, yet the GOP leadership did it anyway because they may not be able to pass the Defense package if they don’t. This is because they’re only using GOP votes to jam though funding bills, and Ukraine is toxic to many House Republicans.

This doesn’t mean Congress won’t eventually appropriate new funding for Ukraine; there are clear supermajorities in both chambers that back Ukraine aid. Yet right now, supporters don’t have a viable plan to get it across the finish line, with House Republicans remaining the chief roadblock.

The dynamic is worrying many top lawmakers. They say the congressional debate is creating a level of uncertainty about the United States’ commitment to Ukraine, and that’s playing right into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hands.

“There’s no doubt in my mind he’s using what’s going on right now to bolster [Putin’s] position and undermine the Western world’s position,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who backs long-term funding for Ukraine, told us. “This whole debate — I mean, it’s BS.”

In early August, President Joe Biden asked for $24 billion to meet Ukraine’s military, economic and humanitarian needs through the end of the year. That number has now been trimmed to $6 billion in a bipartisan Senate stopgap funding proposal designed to keep the government open past Saturday’s deadline — one that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell backs.

At one point during those behind-the-scenes talks on the short-term funding bill, the White House and State Department came up with the $6 billion figure, estimating that would keep the funding spigot turned on for Ukraine over the duration of that Senate stopgap bill — 47 days.

Many Senate Republicans now prefer a clean CR so that Congress can consider and pass a longer-term Ukraine package in a single vote next month. Their preference is to pass a year’s worth of funding that could sustain Ukraine through the 2024 presidential election. These Senate Republicans also believe it would help McCarthy and House Republicans avoid a government shutdown by taking the Ukraine Issue off the table for the moment.

Yet this year-long number could be truly staggering — something in the range of $60 billion to $80 billion. That’s going to be a very difficult vote. So voting multiple times on smaller packages would guarantee that the fissures over Ukraine inside the GOP remain in the headlines.

“We can’t be doing this every three months,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) told us. “It’s going to have to pass eventually. There’s too much support for it.”

House Democrats, meanwhile, want GOP Ukraine supporters like McCaul to be more aggressive in pushing for a vote. The House Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), said that without their nudging, McCarthy “is giving all the appearances of having decided to abandon Ukraine.”

“OK, how are you going to make it not a problem? Because the sit-around-with-your-thumb-up-your-ass plan doesn’t seem to be working at the moment,” Smith said.

— Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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