When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy returns to the U.S. this week to extend his hand in Washington, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will be at the front of the line to grasp it.
In recent weeks, the Kentucky Republican has been making a concerted public case for continued material and financial aid to Ukraine to support its fight against the Russian invasion. "Helping Ukraine retake its territory means weakening — weakening — one of America's biggest strategic adversaries without firing a shot," he said in a recent floor speech.
With Democrats in near lockstep behind President Biden in support for Ukraine funding, McConnell's message is clearly directed at members of his own party who are ready to cut off aid. Last month, President Biden asked Congress to approve an additional $24 billion as part of a broader $40 billion emergency spending package.
How Ukraine funding is tied to a shutdown threat
The Ukraine money is now stuck in limbo as part of a complicated fight over spending that is pitting Republicans against one another and the House against the Senate. Congress has less than two weeks to avoid a shutdown at the end of the month, and McConnell wants to pass Ukraine aid on the same timeline, but there is little urgency among Republicans.
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"There's no national security interest for us in Ukraine, and even if there were, it would be trumped by the fact that we have no money," said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. His long-held opposition to essentially all foreign intervention once made Paul a fringe thinker in the party, but the rise of Trumpian, American First ideology now aligns Paul with a super-majority of Republican voters.
An August CNN poll showed that a majority of Americans, 55 percent, say Congress should not authorize more funding for Ukraine. The opposition is driven by a sharply polarized electorate, with 71 percent of Republicans opposing new funding, compared to 62 percent of Democrats who said they support additional funding.
Republican opposition rests on fiscal and foreign policy grounds.
"I agree that the Ukrainians hold the high moral ground and that [Vladimir] Putin is a thug that invaded a country, but why should we be paying all the bills for something, especially in a powder keg area like that? I think, again, it comes down to that we just can't afford to do that in the long run," said Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., who is running for governor next year.
Another opponent who represents the younger, more populist wing of the GOP, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said the focus on Ukraine is a distraction from the more urgent threat to the U.S. as he sees it: the rise and influence of China.
"I just think as a matter of our alliance with our European allies, we just need to level with them and say, listen, we'll provide the nuclear umbrella in Europe, but we need you to take the lead in the conventional defense of Europe. We'll take the lead on China, but we're not doing that," he told NPR.
Senate Republicans disagree with House colleagues
Most of the Senate's 49 Republicans, for now, appear to be allied with McConnell's neoconservative worldview that not only can the U.S. help Ukraine and take on China at the same time, it has to. "If we appease Putin and pull the plug on Ukraine — and you don't think that makes China more aggressive? I think you're dead wrong," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., "There is no scenario based on human nature where appeasing one bad guy makes the other bad guy less aggressive."
This argument is losing ground in the House, where Speaker Kevin McCarthy has shown tepid support for Ukraine. In July, 70 House Republicans — nearly one-third of their members — voted in favor of an amendment authored by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., that would have altered the national defense bill to block any new funding for Ukraine. All Democrats voted with a majority of Republicans to kill it.
Since then opposition appears to have grown. "I don't feel comfortable sending another dollar to Ukraine," said Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., who supported the first tranche of Ukraine funding, and voted against the Gaetz amendment in July. "The problem is, do you know if Ukraine is winning the war in Ukraine right now? Because I don't. I don't think most members of Congress know whether the Ukrainians are actually winning the war."
Frederick Kagan, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative leaning think tank, disagrees with that view. "There's a customary and normal rush every time any kind of military operation runs into difficulties. To say it's a quagmire, it's a stalemate and so forth, that is not the case here," he said. Kagan was one of the architects of the 2007 surge offensive that helped turn the tide in the Iraq War at the time.
Asked how critical U.S. aid was to Ukraine's chances of survival, he put it bluntly: "American assistance is absolutely vital, absolutely essential and irreplaceable."
For people like McConnell, Graham, and Kagan, the question of what is at stake for the world here could not be more consequential. "This is what Americans need to understand. The alternative to the U.S. leadership of the world as it is, is a Hobbesian world that is the war of all against all. We are much closer to that world than most people imagine," he said.
The Ukraine aid package is expected to ultimately pass, but how much more, and for how much longer, is a question that will linger in Washington long after Zelenskyy returns to Kyiv.
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