Amid concerns that a new Congress could take a more skeptical view of aid to Ukraine, lawmakers from both parties are looking to lock in billions of dollars in military assistance to Kyiv before newly elected members are sworn in in January, according to a lawmaker and congressional staffers.
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, who is poised to take over as speaker if the GOP wins a majority in the House in the November midterm elections, warned this week that his fellow party members are “not going to write a blank check to Ukraine.”
With that threat to Ukraine aid looming, the bipartisan idea under consideration would use a government funding bill during the lame-duck session after the midterms to secure a much higher level of military and other assistance than prior aid packages for Ukraine, according to the lawmaker and the aides.
Congress last month approved $12 billion in military and economic aid to Ukraine, but the package being contemplated would be dramatically larger, the sources said.
The amount would be enough “to make sure [Ukraine] can get through the year,” a Republican senator with knowledge of the matter told NBC News. “It’ll make the $12 billion look like pocket change.”
The new aid package, which most likely would be part of an omnibus spending bill, could be within the range of roughly $50 billion, congressional aides and a source close to the Ukraine government said. The Biden administration has not yet made a formal request for new funding.
Congress has allocated a total of $65 billion in funding to Ukraine since Russia attacked the country in February.
‘Put your own oxygen mask on’
Many Republican candidates endorsed by former President Donald Trump have questioned the amount of U.S. aid delivered to Ukraine to help it fend off Russian forces, which invaded the country in February. They argue that the U.S. has more pressing domestic problems, that Ukraine’s fate is not tied to U.S. national interests and that European allies should be delivering a larger share of the weapons and other assistance to Kyiv.
On Thursday evening, President Joe Biden said of Republicans, “They said that if they win they’re not likely to fund, to continue to fund Ukraine.”
“These guys don’t get it. It’s a lot bigger than Ukraine. It’s Eastern Europe. It’s NATO. It’s really serious, serious consequential outcomes.”
House conservatives argue America needs to shore up its southern border and address the illegal immigration before worrying about Ukraine’s border with Russia.
“My constituents are saying, ‘Why are we more worried about Ukraine’s borders than we are about America’s borders?’ My constituents are not sitting there going, ‘Gosh, we have to save Ukraine’s borders,’” Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, a member of the conservative Trump-aligned Freedom Caucus, said in an interview.
Like Davidson, conservative Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., said her heart breaks for the Ukrainian people, but she has not voted for recent Ukraine aid packages and isn’t inclined to do so next year if Republicans take control of the House, as most polls predict.
“I liken it to the airline videos they do before you take off: You need to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others,” Cammack, a member of the Homeland Security Committee, told NBC News. “And I just don’t think as a legislator that I could, in good conscience, support billions and billions of funding going overseas when we have such dire needs here.”
But some other Republicans in and outside of Congress disagree, reflecting deep divisions in the party over Ukraine and foreign policy more generally.
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee that controls spending, said providing weapons and other assistance to Ukraine is crucial to halting Russia’s unprovoked invasion.
“I voted for the first funding bill, and I would be open to discussing more funding,” Fleischmann said. “If we do not take the necessary steps for Ukraine to protect its nation and sovereignty against Russia, I think the ripple effects will end up costing not only the United States but the world a lot more.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at a Heritage Foundation event on Wednesday, castigated Republicans who opposed backing Ukraine as “apologists” for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“As Russia continues its unconscionable war of aggression to Ukraine, I believe that conservatives must make it clear that Putin must stop and Putin will pay,” Pence said. “There can be no room in the conservative movement for apologists to Putin. There is only room in this movement for champions of freedom.”
The Republican House leadership has “every incentive” to see a large aid package passed now while Democrats hold the majority, so that they do not have to face a divisive, internal debate over the issue if the GOP wins back control of the House, according to Daniel Vajdich, an adviser to Ukraine's state-owned energy industry and president of Yorktown Solutions, a Washington lobbying firm.
“They don’t want to deal with it next year,” said Vajdich, a former Republican congressional staffer.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a staunch supporter of military aid to Ukraine, said last month that he had discussed the issue with McCarthy and that he agreed other countries need to do more to assist Ukraine. But he predicted Ukraine would continue to receive the support it needed.
“I think you can expect Republicans to ask others to do more,” Graham said, referring to America’s NATO partners. “In the House majority, which I think is likely, I am confident that the speaker and most members of the conference in the House on the Republican side understand that the outcome in Ukraine directly impacts our national security.”
But Ukraine, Eastern European governments and Kyiv’s supporters in Congress on both sides of the aisle are worried that a larger contingent of pro-Trump, isolationist-minded lawmakers in Congress could jeopardize the flow of weapons, ammunition and economic aid that has enabled Ukraine to gain ground against Russian troops in recent months.
“We are incredibly concerned that the MAGA wing of the party is planning to block life-saving aid to Ukraine if Republicans take over the House,” said one Democratic congressional aide.
“We are going to have to get creative in the coming months to front load as much aid to Ukraine as possible, given that we may again find ourselves in the calamitous position where Putin’s interests are once again aligned with that of Trump and his followers.”
Ukraine relies heavily on outside funding and arms deliveries to keep up its war effort against Russia. If U.S. aid were to dry up, Ukraine could eventually see a shortage of artillery ammunition, as it burns through thousands of artillery rounds a day, according to defense officials and military analysts. With Russian stepping up drone attacks on its electricity grid and other targets, Ukraine also is depleting its supply of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles and other air defense systems as it tries to counter the aerial assault.
Asked about concerns that congressional support for aid to Ukraine could be at risk, State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken “have been very clear that our commitment to our Ukrainian partners is not just unwavering, but it is ironclad. And we’re going to continue to take steps to do what we can to ensure that Ukraine has what it needs to defend itself, to defend its territorial integrity and to put it in the best position possible at a potential negotiating table whenever that might be.”