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Inside the growing Republican fissure on Ukraine aid

Republicans rallied behind aid to Kyiv after the invasion, but eight months later, some are threatening to cut it off

Senate candidate J.D. Vance (R) speaks at a campaign event in Caledonia, Ohio, earlier this month. (Gaelen Morse/Reuters)

In Ohio, Senate candidate J.D. Vance (R) said the United States would have to “stop the money spigot to Ukraine eventually.” J.R. Majewski, a fellow Ohio Republican running for a House seat, has criticized President Biden for “[cutting] billion-dollar checks to Ukraine” during a time of inflation at home. In New Hampshire, Senate candidate Don Bolduc (R) said U.S. aid to Ukraine is “money we don’t have.”

Opposition to — or skepticism of — sending more U.S. money to Ukraine has accelerated within the GOP in recent weeks, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) signaling earlier this month that Republicans would end or limit spending on the war if they take control of the House in next week’s midterms.

The threat to cut funding marks a sharp turn for a party whose members almost universally embraced aiding Ukraine after Russia invaded in February. Over the past eight months, supporters of former president Donald Trump have joined with skeptics of military intervention and anti-Biden forces within the GOP to challenge traditionally hawkish Republicans.

The result is a rare fissure in the GOP, one likely to flare into a more open battle if Republicans retake Congress and are faced with forceful requests from Biden and emotional appeals from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Just last week, a group of Republican lawmakers opposed a provision that Democrats had inserted in a must-pass defense authorization bill that would allow the Justice Department to send Ukraine millions of dollars in yachts and other assets seized from Russia.

Most Republicans, like Vance and Bolduc, frame their objections in terms of fiscal responsibility, saying the money would be better spent on problems at home. In a few cases, far-right candidates have echoed Trump’s praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin and called for aid to be cut off entirely.

Biden criticizes Republicans for threatening Ukraine aid

But the GOP is also home to a large number of old-school hawks who promise to continue providing support for Kyiv, and in some cases, called on the White House to do even more.

In a sharp break with McCarthy’s comments, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called for just the opposite: He urged the Biden administration “to do more to supply the tools Ukraine needs to thwart Russian aggression,” including additional aid. McConnell said that if the GOP retakes the Senate, the Republican majority would “focus its oversight on ensuring timely delivery of needed weapons and greater allied assistance to Ukraine.”

Several Republicans privately express skepticism that McCarthy and a Republican-led House would cut off aid all together, saying his comments likely included some measure of posturing ahead of the midterms. Republican House members who are in line to ascend to powerful committee positions may find themselves trying to thread the needle between the insurgents and traditionalists.

Even so, the Republican divisions present a challenge for President Biden, who has worked to hold together a domestic and global coalition to support Ukraine amid rising food and gas prices and a global hunger crisis. Biden and his top aides have said they will support Ukraine “as long as it takes” and that they will not force Zelensky to the negotiating table.

The sheer number of Republicans questioning the current U.S. role in the Ukraine conflict is a marked change for a party that has often been led by hawks who have fought to spend more money on military efforts.

That sentiment was personified by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former prisoner of war who advocated forcefully for U.S. military interventions in Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. McCain, who frequently tussled with Trump, died in 2018, quieting an influential voice on Republican foreign policy.

During the Trump presidency, when the former president sporadically called for the United States to pull its troops out of Syria or Afghanistan, his sentiments were quickly rolled back by the Republicans serving under him. Under Biden, however, skepticism over U.S. aid to Ukraine is finding a broader constituency in the Republican Party.

That includes a network of younger conservatives, many centered around groups such as Concerned Veterans for America and Stand Together, which are seeking to redirect the party from its post-9/11 neoconservatism and emphasis on the projection of military power.

“We don’t think blank checks for Ukraine are what’s best for U.S. security or Ukraine’s security,” said Dan Caldwell, vice president for foreign policy of Stand Together, a group backed by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch.

Caldwell, like some progressive lawmakers on the other side of the aisle, has called on the Biden administration to play a larger role in fostering a negotiated end to the conflict sooner rather than later. “It’s immoral to keep urging people to fight in a war that we don’t think they can win,” he said.

Democrats have remained largely united behind aid to Ukraine, though a group of 30 progressive lawmakers last week sent a letter to the White House urging Biden to pursue direct negotiations with Russia and begin working on a diplomatic path to end the war. They called on Biden to pair the unprecedented economic and military support the United States is providing Ukraine with a “proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a cease fire.”

But the leader of the effort, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), rescinded the letter less than 24 hours later after fierce blowback from fellow Democrats, voicing unwavering support for Biden’s approach to the war.

Democrats, and even Republicans, said part of the GOP skepticism of aid to Ukraine stems from opposition to Biden. A central pillar of his presidency has been the effort to rally a coalition of Western leaders who have implemented severe sanctions against Russia and maintained support for Ukraine even as their countries have incurred serious economic disruptions.

“There’s an element of the Republican hostility to Ukraine that’s derived from their hatred of Joe Biden,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “At the outset, Republicans were willing to support Ukraine, but as Joe Biden has had more success in defending Ukraine and more of his identity is attached to the defense of Ukraine, it draws Republican hostility because they simply can’t stomach being on the same side as Joe Biden on anything.”

Still, Congress has so far provided nearly all the aid and weapons the White House has asked for — amounting to more than $60 billion — with overwhelming bipartisan support. Even if Republicans take control of both chambers, the challenge for Biden will be far greater in the House, which will have a significant number of insurgents aligned with Trump.

Some Republicans said a desire to scrutinize the billions in aid suddenly going out the door is entirely reasonable.

“I think what those statements are reflecting is that the aid is not a blank check and is not unlimited, but that’s very different from saying, ‘We’re going to cut you off and turn you over to Putin’s dogs,’ ” said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster. “It’s inconceivable that there could be a significant majority of the total House, Democrats and Republicans, who want to abandon Ukraine to the clutches of Vladimir Putin.”

Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), who would chair the Foreign Relations Committee if the GOP takes over, voiced full-throated support for the war effort and did not signal any change in Republican support for aid and weapons packages.

“Ukrainians alone must decide the future of Ukraine. I support their fight for freedom, which they are winning on the battlefield,” Risch said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Any efforts to appease Putin are dangerous, irresponsible and will only encourage Russia’s aggression.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), who is poised to become the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has tried to incorporate elements of both the traditionalists and insurgents, telling Bloomberg TV he wants more powerful weapons sent to Ukraine but also “more oversight and accountability in terms of the funding.”

Some Republicans favor a measure drafted by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) earlier this year that would designate an inspector general to oversee how Ukraine funds are spent. Paul failed to attach the legislation to the $40 billion Ukraine package, but he shared his ideas on Ukraine oversight in a closed-door meeting with House lawmakers in May, an exchange that could bear fruit next year should Republicans take control of the House.

Democrats argued that the money is desperately needed as Ukrainians battle a ruthless Russian enemy, and that imposing traditional oversight rules would only hurt Ukraine.

“There’s no information that suggests any of these dollars are being misused, and the priority is speed,” Murphy said. “You’ve got to get the money out the door, so absent evidence of misuse of the dollars, I don’t know why we would punish the Ukrainians by slowing the whole process down.”

Polls have shown domestic support for Ukraine softening, particularly among Republicans. In March, 9 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said the United States was providing too much aid to Ukraine, according to a Pew Research Center survey. In a follow-up survey this fall, that figure shot up to 32 percent.

In top Republican circles, the debate over Ukraine aid is increasingly vigorous. In late October, former vice president Mike Pence attempted to rally support behind aid to Ukraine in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a well-known conservative think tank. “Conservatives must make it clear that Putin must stop and Putin will pay,” Pence said.

But following the speech, a handful of prominent Republicans publicly bucked the former vice president. Heritage president Kevin Roberts issued a rejoinder saying Republicans should be “on guard for any attempt to recklessly spend more money.”

“Biden owes the American people a concrete strategy on our future role that doesn’t leave us mired in a state of perpetual conflict management funded by U.S. taxpayers,” said Roberts.

And Pence’s former staffer Russ Vought, who also served as Trump’s budget chief, told C-SPAN he disagreed with Pence’s remarks.

“I have great respect for my old boss, but when we’re spending $54 billion to support Ukraine, that’s more than major departments in the federal government,” Vought said.