GOP leaders start laying groundwork for more Ukraine aid
WASHINGTON — Testimony on Russian war crimes. Monthly classified briefings. High-profile hearings, TV appearances and even op-eds in conservative media outlets.
Leading Republicans in Congress are not waiting for the next debate over assistance to Ukraine, instead launching an early and aggressive effort to make the case for why the U.S. should continue spending billions of dollars on the war effort.
One of their main challenges: winning over skeptical Republican colleagues.
“I’m very much focused on the dissension within my own party on this,” Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Associated Press.
McCaul plans to hold a hearing in the spring focused on Russian atrocities against Ukrainian civilians, to try to bring home the war’s terrible toll.
“I find that moves the dial, when they see these horrific killings of children,” McCaul said.
The task ahead is challenging, particularly in the House. While Republicans have often been the nation’s leading defense hawks, eager for the U.S. to defend its interests through foreign action, former President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach has emboldened a noninterventionist wing that is ascendant. They are clamoring for the Ukraine aid to come to an end.
The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, said of the Republicans across the aisle: “There are some that I’ve talked to, they don’t realize the interest the United States has in it.”
Last week, a group of 11 House Republicans led by Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida unveiled a “Ukraine Fatigue” resolution. It stated that the U.S. “must end its military and financial aid to Ukraine” and urged the combatants to “reach a peace agreement.”
“America is in a state of managed decline, and it will exacerbate if we continue to hemorrhage taxpayer dollars toward a foreign war,” Gaetz said.
The U.S. has provided four rounds of aid to Ukraine in response to Russia’s invasion, totaling about $113 billion, with some of the money going toward replenishment of U.S. military equipment that was sent to the frontlines.
Congress approved the latest round of aid in December. While the package was designed to last through the end of the fiscal year in September, much depends upon events on the ground. Officials in Kyiv anticipate a new Russian offensive in coming weeks around the anniversary of the Feb. 24 invasion, which could hasten Ukraine’s need for more military and economic assistance.
But another funding request is certain to face heavy resistance from lawmakers closely aligned with Trump and budget hawks worried about the nation’s $31 trillion in government debt.
“We’ve got to get our financial house in order in the United States before we put any more dollars overseas for things like that,” said Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C. “We’ve met our goal for Ukraine.”
McCaul, as the new Republican chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is now a key player in U.S. funding decisions. He is working to bring in Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin to testify about the violence being inflicted on civilians.
A team of experts commissioned by the U.N.’s top human rights body found last year that Russian forces are responsible for the vast majority of war crimes and human rights violations in Ukraine. The commission documented patterns of summary executions, unlawful confinement, torture, rape and other sexual violence.
McCaul said he wants his colleagues and the public to see clearly what is happening in Ukraine and why U.S. aid is so vital.
“It’s not a question of either or,” McCaul said. “We’re a great country. We can secure our border and protect freedom and democracy around the world, which is what Ukraine is all about.”
With opponents of Ukraine spending warning of fraud and corruption, the House Armed Services Committee is planning to hold monthly classified briefings for lawmakers to detail, dollar by dollar, how the U.S. security aid is being allocated.
The briefings will be every two weeks for key staff, said Armed Services Chairman Mike Rogers of Alabama, and a public hearing is in the works “to try to get more visibility for the public into the tracking that we’re doing.”
One of the challenges in ensuring accountability is the sheer number of activities that U.S. dollars are supporting.
U.S. dollars not only go to Stinger missiles to take out Russian aircraft, Javelin missiles to take out tanks, but also for food, water and shelter for refugees whose homes have been destroyed. The money also supports basic government services, such as medical care, firefighting and utilities.
The inspectors general for the Defense and State departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development are the lead offices tracking Ukraine spending. Rogers said he is encouraging NATO to bring in a third party to track U.S. weapons to assure the public they don’t end up in the wrong hands.
“We know it’s going to where it is supposed to, but how we know is classified,” Rogers said. “We’ve got to find a way to let the world know from somebody that they have confidence in.”
Recent polling from Gallup found that about two-thirds of Americans support aid for Ukraine to help it regain its territory, even if it means a prolonged conflict. But that support varied depending upon political party. Nearly half of Republicans, or 47%, say the U.S. is doing too much compared with 35% of independents and just 10% of Democrats.
In the Senate, Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has consistently pressed the Biden administration for more robust action to help Ukraine win the war. He wore a bright blue and yellow tie to the State of the Union address last week — the colors of Ukraine’s flag — to trumpet his support.
The ranking Republican on the Senate’s Armed Services panel, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, is using the bully pulpit as well. He spoke at length on the Senate floor about Ukraine and followed up with an op-ed in the National Review, a conservative outlet.
“It is a relatively modest amount that we are contributing without being asked to risk life and limb,” Wicker told the AP. “The Ukrainians are willing to fight the fight for us if the West will give them the provisions. It’s a pretty good deal.”
“And what we’ve done is expose Russia’s very soft, vulnerable underbelly and we’ve made it less likely that any of our NATO allies will be attacked.”
But there are skeptics in the Senate, too. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said China is the U.S.’s top foreign adversary and that’s where Congress should be focusing its attention.
“We need to tell our European friends they need to carry the burden of the conventional defense in Ukraine,” Hawley said.