Congress’ decision to keep money for Ukraine out of the newly enacted continuing resolution drew global attention as a blow to western political support for Ukraine.
But the debate over the CR was, in a sense, a warmup. The main event is yet to come: a congressional bout over one or more hefty installments of new Ukraine-related funding.
The debate over Ukraine funding in the CR was less than met the eye, because, as Pentagon officials acknowledged via email Monday, the Defense Department still has billions of dollars available to help Ukraine in the coming weeks. That comprises, first, authority to send nearly $5.4 billion worth of U.S. military equipment and services to Ukraine. It also includes $1.6 billion in appropriations to replace previously drawn-down U.S. equipment. And it includes an undisclosed additional amount of money that has yet to be spent for newly contracted defense goods and services for Ukraine.
However, while the CR’s lack of Ukraine money doesn’t appear likely to halt deliveries in the near term, Kyiv still desperately needs more help in 2024 and beyond. Yet Americans, especially hard-right voters, seem to be going wobbly in their support for the war-ravaged nation.
The debate over more Ukraine funding could start anew early next month, because the current CR expires Nov. 17. At that point, Congress may clear fiscal 2024 spending bills for the Pentagon and other agencies that could include Ukraine-related appropriations, or there could even be standalone Ukraine legislation. Alternatively, partisan divisions may force lawmakers to clear one or more additional stopgap funding bills, and those measures may or may not contain Ukraine-related appropriations.
Whether the debate happens in November or in the weeks after that, it is coming.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a strong advocate for continued U.S. aid to Ukraine, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Oct. 1 that he foresees a $60 billion to $70 billion Ukraine aid package coming up for a vote within the next month.
That will probably not be enough money for Ukraine in a war that may last years, not months. But it may be all a divided Congress can approve for now in one vote — if it can agree to even that much.
If GOP support for Ukraine funding continues to erode — and especially if the next U.S. president does not support it — then the coming fiscal 2024 funding bills for Ukraine could be critical, and could even be America’s last.
“I’m not worried about the next six weeks,” Graham said, referring to the time span of the CR. “I’m worried about next year.”
CR not for immediate aid
Press coverage of the CR debate’s outcome often delivered a shorthand version of what happened — that Congress said “no” to more money for Ukraine.
That is strictly true. But whatever Ukraine might have received would have been a relatively minor amount in the context of its needs, and the funding may even have expired as soon as mid-November, depending on how the final language in this hypothetical appropriation would have been written.
What’s more, the administration appears to have overstated the significance to Ukraine’s defenses of not getting the requested billions in the CR in the next few weeks.
Any Ukraine aid in the CR would have made a difference mostly to repaying the Pentagon for its efforts to help Ukraine and to keep funds flowing to western contractors to backfill U.S. stocks. It would have been of minimal direct and immediate help to Ukraine’s military forces or citizens.
The State Department’s request for money for economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine might have been more immediately impactful than the defense money, had Congress appropriated it. But little of the State request made it into the Senate’s package, and Ukraine money was never seriously considered by House Republicans.
The Pentagon is not running out of money or weapons for Ukraine any day soon, though some administration officials’ pitches for the money might have left that impression.
Need for aid is ‘long term’
Those officials had described the $24.1 billion request in August for Ukraine-related funding — $13.1 billion of it for the Pentagon — as a critical bridge to keep support going for the last three months of 2023.
Previous appropriations to help Ukraine “have been committed or nearly committed,” wrote Shalanda Young, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, in an Aug. 10 letter submitting the request.
Likewise, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Sept. 21 that the $24.1 billion was needed “on October 1st to be able to ensure that there’s no disruption in the supply of funding to Ukraine.”
Sullivan added: “There’s a sliding scale of disruption, but the day after the funds lapse or run out at the end of the fiscal year, there would be a break if we do not get the funding starting October 1st.”
As recently as Sept. 29, Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord wrote lawmakers saying, in effect, the well of funds had all but run dry.
“Without additional funding now, we would have to delay or curtail assistance to meet Ukraine’s urgent requirements,” including air defense and ammunition, McCord wrote congressional leaders.
Yet, by Monday, less than two days after Congress had turned down the request entirely, Ukrainian officials were minimizing the significance.
And White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters the flow of U.S. weapons for Ukraine taken from U.S. inventories under so-called Presidential Drawdown Authority would not be stopped by a lack of Ukraine money in the CR.
Under PDA, the Pentagon has authority to send U.S. military supplies and services to Ukraine (and, separately, Congress has appropriated funds to restock the shelves emptied under PDA).
“We have enough PDA authority to meet Ukraine’s urgent battlefield needs for a bit longer,” Jean Pierre told reporters. “But it’s not the long-term solution.”
Biden’s request sought no new authority to draw down more U.S. equipment immediately under PDA, only funds to replace what had previously been delivered.
Biden sought about $9.5 billion for several defense purposes in the CR: to backfill U.S. inventories, pay the costs of U.S. military operations tied to Ukraine, and buy new weapons and training under USAI, which does not arrive in Ukraine nearly as fast as PDA. The Senate bill, including a fraction of Biden’s Ukraine request, also omitted PDA.
McCord’s letter to Congress said 155mm artillery shells exemplified the kind of assistance in jeopardy. But the shells would have been procured under USAI and so would be newly manufactured, not immediately ready for use.
That is not to question the importance of providing those shells and other weapons. And a seven-week delay or longer could set back the schedule for providing them later.
But that is not the same as cutting off something ready to be put on a ship or an airplane tomorrow.
McCord’s letter did not directly mention it explicitly, but the Pentagon has several billion dollars in authority to send ready-to-use weapons to Ukraine under PDA. Specifically, a Pentagon official confirmed on Monday, even with no money in the CR, the department still has authority to send Ukraine nearly $5.4 billion worth of U.S. military weapons and services drawn down from Defense Department stocks from a total of $25.9 billion authorized to date for that purpose.
Moreover, the Defense Department has $1.6 billion in appropriations left to restock U.S. shelves that have been drawn down in the process, according to McCord’s letter. Yet spending that $1.6 billion is about maintaining U.S. equipment levels and keeping contractors working efficiently – not about what Ukraine would get right away.
As for the $18.6 billion appropriated so far for USAI, McCord wrote that the Pentagon is “out of” that money.
However, while the administration apparently has announced plans for what it will do with all $18.6 billion, only $9.1 billion has been put on contract, according to a Sept. 12 Pentagon infographic.
As for the other $9.5 billion, it is not clear how much has been put to work. The department has authority to spend up to 49 percent of any given contract using those funds, even as the final deal is still being written, an official said.
While some of the $9.5 billion is being used already under this authority, the official did not immediately say just how much.
McCord has a legitimate concern — ensuring Pentagon orders are in place for meeting Ukraine’s needs tomorrow and ensuring western contractors have a steady demand signal. But that is not the same as immediate aid.
Waning public support
The White House and congressional supporters of Ukraine aid need to address whether it makes more strategic sense to ask for as much as possible in one or more packages or, instead, to aim smaller (less money per package and spread them out) in the hope it would make the bills’ enactment more likely.
What is clear: support for funding further aid to Ukraine is dropping among congressional Republicans and, to a lesser extent, in the broader populace.
In July, during House debate on its NDAA, 70 Republicans voted for an unsuccessful amendment that would have blocked further U.S. security assistance to Ukraine.
Last week, during the House debate on its Defense appropriations bill (HR 4365), 93 Republicans voted in favor of an unsuccessful amendment that would have cut off all such aid entirely.
On a narrower bill that would allocate $300 million in USAI money that had been deleted from the Defense money bill, 117 Republicans said yes to that cutoff — more than half the House’s GOP conference.
Public opinion, too, is moving against Ukraine. A CNN poll in August found that 55 percent of Americans opposed sending more money to help Ukraine. Other polls have shown even less support for the aid. The issue has become yet another partisan dividing point, with 71 percent of Republicans opposing aid and 66 percent of Democrats supporting it in the CNN poll.
Meanwhile, Republican candidates for president, led by former President Donald Trump, have been noncommittal at best about keeping aid going to Ukraine, and some have echoed Russian talking points about the need for peace talks now.
Much ado was made about the CR debate’s effect on Ukraine. But there is much to do — and much of it by a fractured Congress — if U.S. support for that country is to continue.
Briana Reilly contributed to this report.