Capitol Hill is awash in military and foreign policy strategists. They are everywhere you look, around every corner you turn.
Some lawmakers sound like one part general — four-star officers who always want more combat gear in theater — and one part world-renowned military strategist. Others suddenly are modern-day Henry Kissingers on China policy and, somehow, also part Pentagon weapons analysts.
After bare-knuckle political campaigns in 2020 and 2024 fought mostly on domestic issues, the 118th Congress surprisingly finds itself waist-deep in matters of global conflict and competition.
Committees on both sides of the Capitol complex are busy with hearings on the Ukraine war, which weapons systems to send to Kyiv, China’s malign influence against U.S. interests around the globe, replenishing American arms stockpiles diminished via Ukraine aid shipments — and even oversight of the United Nations, a favorite GOP target.
From F-16s to advanced missile systems capable of intercepting Russian missiles or killing Moscow’s tanks, U.S. lawmakers of all political shapes, sizes and stripes claim to know exactly what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s forces need — and don’t need. Ask these sudden experts and they will tell you exactly how Ukraine could defeat its Russian invaders.
Meanwhile, the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday sent to the floor a number of China-themed bills.
“It’s the one-year anniversary of the Ukraine war, and then China with the spy balloon. I mean, the year has opened up with a number of things that are pulling our attention to the role that American leadership plays around the globe,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Policy committees.
The bulk of lawmakers’ international focus is on Ukraine and U.S. military aid to boost its war against Russia.
Many GOP hawks — joined by some Democrats — want the commander in chief to send several specific weapon systems, like F-16 fighter jets and MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems, known in military circles by the kitschy acronym ATACMS — pronounced “attack ’ems.” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, says that was the message he heard from Ukrainian and NATO officials at the recent Munich Security Conference.
GOP members say the Biden administration could provide some undefined number of those jets and missile systems by simply giving Ukraine models that already exist within the U.S. military’s vast inventory. But McCaul and other Republicans also say Ukrainian officials want even more military aid: tanks, ammunition, tank-killing missiles, armored personnel carriers, combat rifles — and beyond.
“The word I kept hearing was: ‘We need to put everything we have into there.’ I know the administration says, ‘As long as it takes,'” McCaul told ABC News’ Martha Raddatz. “I think, with the right weapons, it shouldn’t take so long. And, quite frankly, Martha, this whole thing is taking too long, and it really didn’t have to happen this way.”
One could describe the Biden administration’s stance on which Ukrainian weapons requests to grant as a slow progression from “absolutely not” to “OK, we’re not crazy about it, but we’ll start the paperwork.” That has left the GOP’s hawkish wing frustrated.
Alaska GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan, an Armed Services Committee member, criticized what he called “a pattern with this administration from the beginning, where they have slow-rolled critical military weapon systems. You know, it’s a long list.”
“And to me, that is a real blunder,” he told NBC, adding: “We need to get them what they need now and listen to the Ukrainians.”
McCaul and Sullivan, clearly in the would-be generals camp, are allies of Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The California Republican faces a coming fight within his volatile conference over aid to Ukraine.
‘Take a breath’
Other committee chairs who are close to the speaker sound like Ukraine-fatigued Pentagon bean-counters who would rather slow or stop the arms shipments and use the funds for other things — or just wipe out that spending altogether.
“Congress has provided Ukraine more than $113 billion for security, humanitarian, and economic assistance,” House Oversight and Accountability Chairman James R. Comer, R-Ky., tweeted recently. “It is critical that government agencies administering these funds ensure they are used for their intended purposes to prevent the risk of waste, fraud, & abuse.”
The GOP’s MAGA interventionists, who want to cut off the Ukraine aid spigot, are on a collision course with the would-be generals. Then there are the party’s “take a breath” strategists.
“I think in terms of the weapons that we provide to Ukraine, that our nation is walking a very fine line and we don’t want to provoke ourselves into a conflict with Russia,” said Senate Foreign Affairs member Mitt Romney, R-Utah. “At the same time, we want to give Ukraine as much support as we can, and you can always count on the opposition party to attack the alternative. But this is one where that judgment is hard to make. And I think you got to take a breath.
“Look, I disagree with Joe Biden and almost everything he’s done,” Romney added. “But I think on Ukraine, by and large, he’s done a good job.”
Then there are a long list of Senate Democrats, many of whom suddenly also sound like generals.
Senate Armed Services member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he thinks “the administration has provided immense support, and I hope it will continue to do so without delay.
“Sometimes there’s been hesitation or caution, and I’ve pushed very hard for additional weapons platforms like the tanks that he provided, and now, jet fighters that hopefully we will be sending,” he added, referring to F-16s Ukraine has requested. “But I think we should be united behind even more vigorous military support as well as humanitarian aid.”
‘Not focused on war’
It is notable that Democrats, not known as the more hawkish party, are the ones beginning to talk about handing the Pentagon emergency aid monies for Ukraine.
“I think a supplemental will be talked about when they utilize more. We’re just not at a point where we need one,” said Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont. “They just said it may require something before the end of the year.”
Tester agreed both chambers are focusing more heavily on global affairs than expected, and he warned that could be misunderstood.
“I’m not focused on war. I’m concerned, you know what, because it could be interpreted as that. … I’m concerned that China is doing things that are pushing the envelope to a point where we better be prepared,” he told your columnist, who followed up: “Do you think we are?”
“Oh, yeah, I do,” Tester replied. “But I think we need to continue to be vigilant.” Translation: While the office of the presidency is handed ample foreign policy powers, the 118th Congress is going to use the ones the Constitution awards it.
Your columnist garnered agreement from Kaine — “that’s a fair assessment” — when noting most Congress-watchers expected the 118th to feature a number of loud, partisan fights over domestic issues like a new farm bill, federal spending levels, government debt levels, abortion policy, the situation at the southern border, the fentanyl crisis and investigations into Biden and his family’s business dealings, as well as the president’s judicial and executive nominees.
“Oh, we’re going to do all that, too,” Kaine said. “Don’t you worry.”
Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter.