Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) was in his element back home in Kentucky, speaking at a Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce lunch. Early in his appearance, after going through a litany of what he said were President Joe Biden’s failures, he turned to Ukraine as an area of bipartisanship.
“Let me just tell you that I think beating the Russians in Ukraine is the single most important thing to world peace that we’re dealing with at the moment. The Russians simply have to be defeated,” he said July 5.
“Some people write me and say, ‘Well, why did we send $40 billion over there?’ Well, the answer to that is it costs us a lot more to do it later,” he said.
Some of those people are in McConnell’s own party — including Donald Trump, who could be the party’s presidential nominee again in 2024.
And that presents a problem for McConnell and President Joe Biden. Helping Ukraine, which started off with broad public and bipartisan support, is at risk of becoming yet another casualty of today’s polarized politics.
According to Morning Consult polling, while a plurality of all voters see the United States as doing “the right amount” to help Ukraine, Republican voters were the only group more likely to say the U.S. was doing “too much,” at 28%, than too little, 25%.
A June poll for the University of Maryland found that willingness to tolerate substantially or somewhat higher levels of energy prices and inflation had dropped off for Republican voters compared to overall voters in a similar March survey.
“Some people write me and say, ‘Well, why did we send $40 billion over there?’ Well, the answer to that is it costs us a lot more to do it later,”
– Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell
With the war near a standstill in the country’s eastern region, Ukraine will have to come back for more money eventually, and if Republicans win one or both chambers of Congress, it is by no means clear more aid will be forthcoming.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, the firebrand House Republican from Florida, said as much in a July 1 exchange with Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.). Answering a Tweet from Gallego that said “Fact is if the Republicans take over the House in 2022 US support to Ukraine will come to a halt,” Gaetz replied, “Ruben is correct.”
At a recent rally in Anchorage, Alaska, Trump riffed on the cost so far, misstating the amount spent.
“Like with Ukraine, we put up $60 billion and Europe put up $5, 6 [billion]? OK?” he said, drawing boos from the crowd. (Through early July, Congress has authorized about $54 billion for assistance not only to Ukraine, but to neighboring countries as well in response to the Russian invasion. )
And Trump is by no means alone among Republicans. On the last aid package, 11 GOP senators voted against more money, including Kentucky’s Rand Paul.
“We don’t have any money for anyone,” he told HuffPost. “I mean, we’re a trillion dollars in the hole every year. So any money that is allocated to send to a foreign country has to be borrowed first from another foreign country.”
The outlook in the Senate is arguably better for Ukraine than in the House, with McConnell and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) presenting a mostly united front on the issue so far. In the House, where Republicans have the best chance to take over and where 57 members of the conference voted against the last aid package, the picture is murkier.
Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) is expected to get the Speaker’s gavel if the GOP picks up the handful of seats it needs in the fall to win control. But McCarthy’s grip on the conference is somewhat tenuous, which could lead him to have to make promises to secure the 218 votes needed for the speakership.
One obvious potential spoiler group: the House Freedom Caucus, which hounded the two most recent Republican speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan. Members of the group have complained about the Biden administration caring more about Ukraine’s borders than the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, one of the Freedom Caucus veterans and a vote against the last aid package, said the group has yet to talk about the issue in depth.
If Republicans win, supporting further aid to Ukraine would have to be a broader, conference-wide call, he said.
“It’s got to be a conference decision and, look, we haven’t won yet. We’ve got to win,” he said.
Requests for comment with McCarthy’s office were not answered.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat who is second-in-command in House leadership, said a majority of the House and Senate were not for “giving up on Ukraine” even if some in the Republican Party were.
“My view is that there are obviously Putin sympathizers — Trump obviously being one — within their party. And I think that’s unfortunate,” he said.
“Putin must not win this effort, or every two-bit, tinhorn dictator in the world will think they can do the same,” Hoyer said.
One GOP aid foe, Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, said she was looking for ways to help Ukraine without using taxpayer dollars. She said she expects another round of aid to be approved this calendar year but she wanted to see if International Monetary Fund reserve assets could be used instead.
Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the second-ranking Senate Republican, said he worried about Ukraine “fatigue” and that there was “a legitimate case” that other NATO allies and Europe pay more.
But he also said there was a rising tide of isolationist political sentiment as well.
“It’s a real problem,” Cornyn said. “You’ve got to be willing to make the case and that’s going to require some leadership.”
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