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Orest Deychakiwsky

Republican Congressional split on Ukraine: How serious is it?


Don’t ask the question if you are not prepared to hear the answer, as the old saw goes. I suspect the reporter from Russian state-owned media RIA Novosti regrets asking U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) the question he did during a May 1 news conference in Israel. The hapless questioner posited that Mr. McCarthy was not in favor of “the unlimited and uncontrolled supplies of weaponry and aid to Ukraine,” and he expected to hear a variation of Mr. McCarthy’s much criticized “no blank check” comment.  Instead, the speaker responded by expressing heartfelt support for aid to Ukraine, adding: “I do not support what your country has done to Ukraine. I do not support your killing of children. … You should pull out. And I don’t think it’s right. And we will continue to support Ukraine because the rest of the world sees it just as it is.”  

Mr. McCarthy’s comments sent a clear message not only to Moscow, but also to our allies and partners and to the rest of the world, reinforcing America’s ongoing support for Ukraine. At the same time, Mr. McCarthy perhaps was also sending a message to those in his own party who question U.S. assistance to Ukraine. 

The speaker’s message was immediately followed by powerful remarks from former House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), yet again testifying to Congress’ strong bipartisan backing for Ukraine. The brief video is worth viewing. It can be found online at https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/speaker-mccarthy-blasts-russian-reporter-in-israel-reaffirms-support-for-ukraine/ar-AA1aBexe. I must note that Mr. Hoyer is a long-time friend of Ukraine – even prior to Ukraine’s independence. As chairman of the Helsinki Commission back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he led Congressional efforts on behalf of Ukrainian political prisoners/Helsinki monitors and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which was banned in the Soviet Union at that time. His leadership even back then underscores that bipartisan Congressional support for Ukraine is far from a recent phenomenon.

So, what about the right-wing MAGA isolationists, you ask? Yes, there is the “Ukraine Fatigue Resolution” introduced by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) in February with nine cosponsors.  It has not gained any traction since then. And there is the April letter initiated last month by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) criticizing so-called “unrestrained aid to Ukraine.”  The letter was signed by only two other Republican Senators and 16 House Republicans – not exactly a huge number of signatories when you consider there are 100 Senators and 435 House members.  At the same time, one cannot rule out the possibility that the number of legislators sharing their sentiments might increase.

The small but noisy right-wing MAGA isolationist wing of the GOP is by no means to be dismissed or taken for granted, even with the removal from Fox News of their most prominent spokesperson, the notorious Tucker Carlson who often spouted Kremlin talking points. The isolationists will continue to be a problem. Indeed, with his party’s narrow majority in the House, Mr. McCarthy may not be in a position to altogether dismiss their views. However, it is a mistake to conflate the minority who oppose aid with all Congressional Republi-cans.  

I believe that most Congressional Republicans understand America’s pivotal role in the world and the need for a strong defense budget, and most would agree that we are “the arsenal of democracy.”  They come from the national security/internationalist/traditional/Reaganite wing of the GOP – call it what you will.  

So far, there are many more of them than there are isolationists – although isolationism, too, has a long tradition within the Republican party and within the conservative movement in general. The isolationist-internationalist split is manifesting itself now on the pages of conservative journals regarding the U.S. role in defending Ukraine, with some conservative thinkers questioning America’s role in the war, and others vigorously supporting it.  

And then there are some within the Republican party – including, I suspect, many of the MAGA-types – who oppose America’s aid for Ukraine simply because a Democratic administration is for it. You can bet that, if there were a Republican administration doing exactly what this Democratic administration is doing to back Ukraine, you would hear less criticism.  Truth be told, if the situation was reversed and a Ukraine-supporting Republican administration was in power, you would probably hear more criticism from some Democrats. 

But what matters far more than what the isolationist naysayers think is what Republican leaders in both the House and Senate say and do, such as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who has been outspoken in championing Ukraine assistance. What also carries considerable weight in both chambers are the stances of leaders of key committees that deal with foreign relations, national security and intelligence. And they have been stalwart in their support – often even pushing the administration to do more in military assistance to ensure that Ukraine emerges victorious. For that matter, many Democrats do as well.

We see countless manifestations of support for Ukraine from Republicans in Congress – often working across the aisle with their Democratic counterparts on bills, resolutions, CODELS (Congressional delegations) to Kyiv, hearings, briefings, letters to the administration, press conferences, interactions with visiting Ukrainian officials, Rada members and civil society, as well as speaking out on Ukraine at various international parliamentary forums.

There are some legitimate questions raised about Ukraine aid from within the Republican party, especially by fiscal conservatives – and even from Democrats. One regards the spending of U.S. taxpayer money for Ukraine. Thus far, since Russia’s full-fledged invasion, Congress has appropriated four massive emergency military, financial and humanitarian aid packages for Ukraine totaling $113 billion – an unprecedented amount for a war in which the U.S. has not been directly involved. In each appropriation, Congress provided even more funding than the administration requested. The last Ukraine emergency funding bill in December was for $45 billion – which was $8 billion above the administration request.

Of course, there should not be any blank checks, as there should not be for any other expenditure of taxpayer money. Oversight and accountability are important. Indeed, there are already numerous accountability provisions in various Ukraine assistance-related legislation, and officials from some 20 federal agencies are involved in tracking American assistance to Ukraine.  There has been no credible evidence to date that U.S. assistance is going where it should not go.  Moreover, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appears to be cracking down on corruption. Frankly, I think the Ukrainian people – given all that they are going through – are in no mood to tolerate corruption. Thankfully, it appears that concerns about misuse of U.S. assistance in Congress are being allayed.

The fact of the matter is that, as things stand now, the majority of House and Senate Republicans back Ukraine. They understand that a Ukrainian victory is both in our vital national interests and deeply consistent with the values we have long espoused. Like most of their constituents, they find abhorrent Russia’s sheer brutality against innocent Ukrainian civilians, including children.

Ukraine assistance – specifically, when it comes to funding levels – may still face hurdles from Republicans in the House, notwithstanding the significance of Mr. McCarthy’s stance.  Voices questioning our support for Ukraine may grow the longer the war goes on and pressure increases for some sort of a negotiated settlement. Therefore, friends of Ukraine, especially the Ukrainian American community, must continue to engage in robust advocacy to ensure Ukraine’s funding needs are met.  Support of many other worthwhile bipartisan Congressional bills, resolutions and other initiatives will also remain essential. More on that in future columns.