On the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine back in February, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell had a message: “I think there’s been way too much attention given to a very few people who seem not to be invested in Ukraine’s success.”
Despite the noise, he was offering assurance that the GOP remained very much in Ukraine’s corner.
Five months later, a series of votes in the House suggests the majority of the congressional GOP does remain on Ukraine’s side. But it also suggests a sizable and growing bloc of Ukraine funding skeptics that could imperil major Ukraine packages in the future.
Republicans forced votes Thursday on five different Ukraine proposals during debate over the defense policy bill. Each of them were roundly defeated, but with significant GOP support that suggests getting a potentially crucial majority of GOP votes in the future isn’t a done deal.
A proposal from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) would have struck $300 million in security assistance to Ukraine. It got the support of 89 out of 219 Republicans voting — about 41 percent.
A proposal from Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) would have gone even further, prohibiting all security assistance to Ukraine — both the $300 million in the bill and future support. It got the support of 70 House Republicans — nearly one-third of the party’s conference voting to cut off Ukraine entirely.
The numbers were both bigger than the 57 House Republicans who voted against a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine back in May 2022.
And these nay votes raise real questions about just how long the GOP might allow such aid packages to pass, now that they control the House. That’s especially true if House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) abides by the long-standing practice of not voting on things unless they have majority support in the majority party, also known as the “Hastert rule,” and abides by other restraints he’s said he would.
If 41 percent of House Republicans don’t want to spend a relatively paltry $300 million on Ukraine, what happens if a package is in the tens of billions again? (Total aid for Ukraine since the invasion has topped $110 billion.) And we now know that nearly one-third of the conference wants to cut off Ukraine entirely — a number that doesn’t exactly suggest “very few.”
It’s a dicey future that McCarthy previewed back before the 2022 election, when he warned that if Republicans took over the House, future aid packages might not be so robust, and the support might not be open-ended. Some interpreted the message to be that if Democrats wanted to make sure Ukraine was funded — as McCarthy has said he supports — they had better pass something before the GOP actually took over. Which they did as part of a must-pass bill in the lame-duck session.
But that and the $300 million in the defense policy bill are very unlikely to be the last time Congress will be confronted with this issue. And the votes Thursday set the baseline for that future debate, whenever it might come.
In addition to the Hastert rule, that debate could also be complicated by restraints put in place in the debt ceiling deal, after which McCarthy split with McConnell in assuring that any future aid would be subject to its spending limits.
The question from there is whether GOP opposition to Ukraine funding continues to grow, especially if we’re talking about larger sums. It has certainly grown since May 2022. But as I wrote earlier this week, the Republican base’s skepticism of funding Ukraine, after rising steadily throughout 2022, has plateaued as the Russia hawks have begun to speak up more forcefully.
The percentage of Republican voters who say we’re sending too much money? About 4 in 10, right around the percentage of House Republicans who voted against the $300 million on Thursday.
If either of those percentages grows — and if McCarthy holds to tight restrictions on how that funding might come about — we could be in for some very difficult debates over continued support for Ukraine’s defense.