There’s a widening rift between Republicans in the House and Senate, and continued support for Ukraine is right in the middle of it. Or, looked at another way, the pro-Putin bloc of House extremists is determined to end aid to Ukraine and even shut down the government to do so, even if it means endangering the House Republican majority and the prospects for a GOP majority in the Senate.
Back in July, 70 House Republicans went on record as opposing any more aid to Ukraine, voting for an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act introduced by Republican chaos agent Rep. Matt Gaetz. That amendment was soundly defeated by the majority of Republicans and all Democrats. So it was kind of a freebie and an opportunity to posture for those opposing Republicans: They knew it wouldn’t pass. But that also means that the Freedom Caucus extremists are going to keep pushing for Putin. They’ve declared that defunding Ukraine is just one of their outlandish demands in exchange for allowing us to have a functioning federal government. That demand comes with a blatant threat to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The unspoken message is: Give in to us or we’ll force a vote on your speakership.
For his part, McCarthy has predictably been all over the map on Ukraine, telling whoever he’s talking to what they want to hear. He ran for the speaker job on the premise that he would cut off Ukraine funding. When he was in Israel this spring, he insisted, “I support aid for Ukraine,” and added, “We will continue to support—because the rest of the world sees it just as it is.” At the same time, he keeps repeating there will be “no blank check” for Ukraine.
Lining up against McCarthy, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has laid down his own marker: Ukraine aid, and opposition to Russia, must continue. He’s got the majority of Republicans with him, but there are still obstacles he has to navigate as well.
With just 23 days to pass funding legislation before the expiration of the fiscal year, the only way to get it done is to buy time in the form of a continuing resolution, a stop-gap bill that extends the current funding for the weeks or months it takes Congress to pass all of the appropriations bills for 2024. That’s a must-pass bill for the majority of both House and Senate members—Democrats and Republicans alike.
The solution is to combine the supplemental aid to Ukraine that President Joe Biden has asked for with the continuing resolution, and to add something plenty of Republicans want and need for their districts to the mix: disaster relief. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is facing its own emergency—it’s nearly out of money and the natural disasters keep coming. To add some more sweetener for Republicans, the administration added border security funding to the $40 billion supplemental funding request.
As of now, Senate Republicans are cheering for the $16 billion in disaster relief Biden wants. But they are also making noises about how it should not be tied to anything else as they try to score political points against Biden. Case in point: Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.
“President Biden is holding Floridians, and other Americans, hostage by tying critical domestic disaster relief to foreign military aid,” Rubio said. His fellow Floridian, Sen. Rick Scott, chimed in with, “There’s no logic behind tying disaster aid to anything else, and doing so only causes inexcusable delays that hurt Floridians and every other American who may face a disaster.”
As sitting senators, both of them know very well why foreign aid and domestic disaster relief have to be tied together. They know how much time it takes to get anything done in the Senate, and thus the necessity of lumping all the important stuff together to meet a crucial deadline. They also know very well that McCarthy is predisposed to give in to the nihilistic bomb throwers who seemingly want to help Putin in every way they can, including defunding Ukraine and destabilizing the U.S. with a catastrophic shutdown.
Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican and Donald Trump sycophant, sees that. “No problem at home gets better if [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wins,” he told The Washington Post. “We have needs for our own military. We have needs for states that suffer disasters. And I think it’s prudent to continue to support Ukraine,” he added. When push comes to shove, that’s likely where the majority of Senate Republicans will end up landing.
Getting there, and keeping the government open while continuing aid to Ukraine, is particularly perilous right now. It all depends on McConnell’s ability to keep a healthy majority of his Republicans on board in a united front, and making it absolutely clear to McCarthy that he doesn’t have a choice. As House speaker, he has to protect the majority of his conference from the political fallout a shutdown would rain upon them, and buck the Freedom Caucus.
Right now, the continued existence of Ukraine and a functioning U.S. government terrifyingly depend on whether the combined forces of Biden and a unified Senate can prop McCarthy up against the extremists in the House.
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