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Lawmakers welcome Zelenskyy but don’t have path to Ukraine aid

'They need it and they’re going to get it,' McCaul says

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova, right, leave a meeting with House members in the Capitol on Thursday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova, right, leave a meeting with House members in the Capitol on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday once more made the trek to Capitol Hill to convince U.S. lawmakers to maintain the monetary support that has been essential to Ukrainians’ ability to withstand and push back against the Russian invasion, but the legislative path to that aid looks much murkier than last time.

Zelenskyy’s previous visit last December, which included a well-received address to a joint meeting of Congress, was less fraught as lawmakers were then on the verge of clearing a nearly $45 billion aid request for Ukraine. But the intervening nine months have brought a change in House control, Republican infighting over spending as the fiscal year is ending, and more Republican opposition to aid to Kyiv. 

“They need it and they’re going to get it. The majorities support this,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said to reporters after participating in a meeting with Zelenskyy and other GOP and Democratic House leaders. “We will get it done. There are a lot of political machinations right now, but I assure you we’re going to get it passed.”

McCaul didn’t say how.

With the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, House Republicans have been unable to agree on a continuing resolution that would prevent a partial government shutdown in nine days. The GOP conference last week was discussing a stopgap measure that would not include Ukraine aid, instead delaying the decision until lawmakers get to spending bills. 

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., appeared no closer on Thursday to a continuing resolution that Republicans could unite behind. And some Republicans vow to try to unseat him if he relies on Democrats to pass such legislation. Six Republicans voted Thursday with Democrats to again reject the rule that would have allowed the chamber to proceed to the fiscal 2024 Defense spending bill.

By Thursday afternoon, Republicans were discussing a plan to resume work on fiscal 2024 appropriations bills, abandoning the work on a stopgap funding measure this week.

The Biden administration’s emergency supplemental spending request included $24 billion in aid for Ukraine and other allies. Less than $11 billion of that amount is security-related and the remainder is for economic and humanitarian-related assistance to Ukraine and other countries negatively impacted by the 19-month war. Because Congress is weeks away from appropriations bills, attaching the aid to a CR looks more likely to get the aid to Ukraine sooner.

McCarthy spoke positively of his meeting with the Ukrainian leader, the answers he received to questions, and the recent changes that Zelenskyy has made in his defense strategy, including replacing his defense minister.

But McCarthy criticized what he views as President Joe Biden’s misplaced priorities in trying to secure more financial support for Ukraine without offering a detailed plan of what and when victory might come in Eastern Europe. He also faulted the president for not seeking more funding from Congress for border security at levels that Republicans say are necessary.

“A lot of this doubt lies on President Biden. He hasn’t made the case to the American public. What is victory? What does it take to be able to win?” the speaker said.

The Senate

With defense assistance comprising a smaller share of the total amount of the requested Ukraine package, some Republicans like Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa have said Europeans should be shouldering the weight of further humanitarian support to Ukraine while the U.S. focuses on military support.

Senate Appropriations ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, pushed back strongly on that argument after she met with Zelenskyy at an all-senators morning meeting on Thursday.

“I told him that there were some in Congress who felt we should only continue with military aid and not with economic and humanitarian assistance and I asked him what the impact of that would be,” Collins told reporters. “And he explained that all of their budget is going to pay their soldiers and sailors and that if they did not get the humanitarian and economic aid, they would lose their schoolteachers, their health care professionals would leave … additional people literally would die.”

The European Union says that since the start of Moscow’s war against Ukraine in February 2022, the EU and member countries have provided more than $88 billion in financial, military, humanitarian and refugee assistance. That compares to the approximately $100 billion in total support the U.S. government has provided to Ukraine.

House and Senate Democrats are largely united in support of additional funding for Ukraine. Republican mostly also back the funding, but the small Republican House majority leaves McCarthy with few votes he can lose. 

Zelenskyy’s staff sought another opportunity for him to give a speech to Congress this week but McCarthy rejected that request.

“What I was asked for was a joint session,” McCarthy told reporters. “We don’t have the time for a joint session. He was already provided a joint session [last December].”

Also on Thursday, a group of Republicans, including six senators and 23 House members, released a letter to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget laying out their reasoning for opposing the Ukraine aid funding request. They said further infusions of American taxpayer money would be unwise given the lack of clarity on when Kyiv might win and what a victory might look like.

“If they get $100 billion tomorrow, it’s not like they’re going to win the war. I think what we’ve learned here is that plowing resources into the Ukrainian war effort has just led to a stalemate,” Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, who led the letter, said to reporters. “We were in a classified [administration] briefing yesterday. There’s no credible argument from the State Department or DOD that there is a strategic inflection point around the corner.”

Other lawmakers who met with Zelenskyy were glowing in their assessments.

“This guy is so good. He is incredible…. He is so strong. He shows no fatigue … he’s just a person we admire greatly, he’s extremely credible,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “He points out his soldiers are fighting but he’s fighting our war.”

Added Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.: “I thought he was strong in presenting why this is important to us and important to them in terms of preserving democracy and freedom and that China’s watching.”

Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., called Zelenskyy “very impressive” and said that the Ukrainian leader conveyed the message that “the Ukrainian people are willing to continue the struggle indefinitely. If Russia wins, then China will get the wrong message, Iran will get the wrong message. So, I think he did a very good job.”

David Lerman, Aidan Quigley, and Valerie Yurk contributed to this report.

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