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Dispute over oversight is at heart of Senate’s Ukraine aid delay

Rand Paul wants to put Afghanistan spending watchdog in charge of Ukraine assistance

Sen. Rand Paul has held up Ukraine aid over a dispute about oversight of the spending.
Sen. Rand Paul has held up Ukraine aid over a dispute about oversight of the spending. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

To many observers on Capitol Hill and in foreign aid circles, Sen. Rand Paul’s lonely opposition to swift passage of a $40 billion package of military, economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine is nothing new. The Kentucky Republican has a well-known penchant for spending hawkishness mixed with dovishness when it comes to global interventions.

But the drama surrounding Paul’s procedural roadblock, which he’s admitted is doomed to failure, masks an important policy divide as lawmakers try to navigate and account for what’s already become one of the largest foreign aid commitments in U.S. history.

The dispute, at least in part, appears to revolve around the man Paul would like to become the new government watchdog for Ukraine spending: John F. Sopko, who for a decade has played a similar role for the U.S. financial commitment in Afghanistan.

Sopko hasn’t been sparing in his criticism of all three administrations he’s worked under. In his latest missive, an interim report posted Wednesday at midnight on the collapse of Afghan security forces that led to the Taliban takeover last summer, Sopko takes both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden to task.

“The single most important factor” in that series of events, Sopko wrote, was the deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces inked by the Trump administration in February 2020 followed by Biden’s April 2021 announcement that all troops would come home by Sept. 11, 2021. Sopko wrote that those announcements destroyed Afghan morale and resulted in “a sense of abandonment” within the Afghan military and broader population.

[Afghanistan’s fall was inevitable once U.S. left, watchdog finds]

Paul and others said there were concerns among Democrats and within the Biden administration about handing over Ukraine oversight responsibilities to Sopko’s office.

“I thought it was more hawks on the right that hated him, but there are hawks on the right and left, it’s true,” Paul said.

‘A fine job’

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said the Pentagon, which has come in for criticism in Sopko’s reports, has weighed in against Paul’s proposal.

Thune said the Defense Department prefers that the bill remain silent on who would become the new inspector general for Ukraine aid. A Pentagon spokesperson directed questions to the agency’s own IG office, which didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., has authored competing legislation that would set up a new office to oversee Ukraine aid. It would give the president authority to appoint a new inspector general within 30 days of enactment.

Kennedy said Sopko “did a fine job” and that he personally could support Paul’s alternative. But Kennedy said he also understands “the White House had some discomfort in being told who the inspector general would be.”

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said Tuesday that Democrats’ opposition to Paul’s amendment has “nothing to do with” concerns about Sopko and his office, formally known as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR.

Menendez echoed former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who when asked about Paul’s proposal last week said there was already oversight language and some money in the underlying bill. That includes a mandated Pentagon inspector general report and $5 million for IG offices at the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said Paul’s language to expand SIGAR’s mandate to cover Ukraine is “one of the reasons” Democrats oppose his amendment.

Reed said SIGAR was created to examine operations in a region where the U.S. was present and involved in all of the operations. Oversight of a boots-on-the-ground operation is very different from keeping an eye on weapons and aid distribution, he said, adding that it took SIGAR years to understand Afghan culture, politics and other unique dynamics in order to become effective.

“The situation in Ukraine is quite different, and to take an agency who has expertise certainly in Afghanistan, and suddenly say, ‘You are now in charge of Ukraine’ is not particularly, I think, sensible,” Reed said.

Paul said that SIGAR officials have told him they are ready and up to the task. SIGAR’s public affairs office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Eye-opening numbers

Once the supplemental package clears for Biden’s signature, likely on Thursday, it will bring total Ukraine-related assistance to nearly $54 billion this fiscal year. For context, the rest of the budget for the State Department and global foreign aid programs this year is $56 billion, and the tab for the 20-year U.S. presence in Afghanistan in terms of security, economic and humanitarian relief is $146 billion.

Sopko’s office estimates it’s clawed back nearly $4 billion in savings for U.S. taxpayers through identifying instances of wasteful spending in Afghanistan — a track record Paul wants to replicate in Ukraine.

“We’ve offered, we think, the best solution, and that is an existing special inspector that has a track record, has done a great job in Afghanistan. We think that would be best,” Paul said Tuesday. “He’s ready to go; they can do the job. But any other alternative, we think, falls short.”

The Project On Government Oversight, a think tank, likes the Paul language and is “happy with the job” that Sopko has done in Afghanistan, according to Liz Hempowicz, the group’s director of public policy.

POGO hosted Sopko at a briefing last September, when he said his job wasn’t over despite the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. “There are a lot of questions that need to be answered,” he said. “We spent too much money, too fast, in too small a country, with no oversight.”

Hempowicz said it would be easier for SIGAR to ramp up in Ukraine rather than create an entirely new office, though she said an even better approach would be to confirm permanent IGs for Defense and State and give them resources to do the job properly.

Paul’s amendment would extend the new, combined IG office’s authorization through Sept. 30, 2027. It wouldn’t provide any new specific funding for the expanded office to carry out its duties, instead relying on unspent dollars from prior appropriations, which includes $40 million this fiscal year.

‘Working it out’

Some senators on both sides of the aisle said Paul’s basic argument for added oversight has merit but the issue is too complicated to hash out as part of a must-pass bill that the military’s top brass says they need by Thursday, when existing funds are set to run out.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It’s just a question of working it out,” Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said Tuesday. “But I think we ought to go ahead and vote on this and get the money for the guns and some humanitarian [aid] as quickly as possible.”

Congress should consider having an inspector general oversee the aid distribution, Reed said, but getting money out the door quickly is more pressing.

Kennedy’s bill would create a new Special Inspector General for Ukrainian Military, Economic and Humanitarian Aid with a $20 million fiscal 2023 appropriation pulled from prior, unspent funds for Central Asia and Eastern Europe democracy-building programs.

Unlike Paul, Kennedy secured some additional backing for his effort; Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is an original co-sponsor, and Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., signed on a day later. All three are Senate Appropriations Committee members. On Monday, they got their first Democratic co-sponsor: Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema.

Senate leaders offered a unanimous consent agreement last week to pass Kennedy’s bill separately and then give Paul a vote on his proposal as an amendment, subject to a 60-vote threshold. Paul objected, arguing his proposal should simply be added to the base text. But leaders want to avoid sending the measure back to the House, which passed it early last week on a 368-57 vote.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Monday that Democrats were largely “fine with Sen. Kennedy’s approach.” An added bonus, Cardin said, was that Kennedy didn’t “require us to accept his views,” in contrast to Paul.

Kennedy last week discussed why his approach may have won over more senators.

“If I do an amendment, it’s got to go back to the House, and that slows things down,” Kennedy said Thursday. “So I have told my colleagues, look, I’m fine with a stand-alone bill. I’m easy, you know. I love everybody. I look for grace wherever I can find it.”

Lindsey McPherson and David Lerman contributed to this report.

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