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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), a gregarious type who stops to greet tourists making their way to the House side of the U.S. Capitol, studiously avoided being photographed in public Thursday with one visitor: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Zelenskyy was visiting with lawmakers in an attempt to rustle up additional U.S. support for Ukraine in its war with Russia ― framing the smaller country’s struggle as an effort to defend democracy itself.
But at the same time, one key committee chairman within McCarthy’s own conference suggested that Congress pass a bill requiring the Biden administration to give Zelenskyy the weapons for which he’s been pleading for months, because the White House is moving too slowly.
Welcome to House Republicans and Ukraine, 2023 edition.
With some polls showing that Republicans now mostly oppose further aid to Ukraine, the split between the GOP’s traditional foreign policy internationalists and its ascendant Make America Great Again nationalist wing is most apparent in the House.
After attending a small group meeting with Zelenskyy and a handful of fellow House members, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) told reporters that he worries the White House is sabotaging Ukraine’s chances by moving too slowly to give it weaponry it needs for its fight against Russia’s ongoing invasion.
“We need to give them everything they need. If this administration won’t give it to them, then I submit we write it in our appropriations bill,” McCaul, who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, told reporters.
We need to give them everything they need. If this administration won’t give it to them, then I submit we write it in our appropriations bill.Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs
Specifically, McCaul suggested adding language to mandate that Ukraine get F-16 fighter jets and long-range rockets, known as ATACMs, into a supplemental spending bill the White House has proposed.
McCarthy said Tuesday that he’d planned to ask Zelenskyy to account for the weaponry and aid the U.S. has already sent, and to ask how Ukraine would use the proposed $20 billion in new money on top of the $77 billion already committed to Ukraine.
“Where’s the accountability and the money we’ve already spent? What is the plan for victory? I think that’s what the American public wants to know,” McCarthy told reporters.
Unlike during visits from other foreign leaders, like U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, McCarthy avoided a public opportunity to be photographed with Zelenskyy, which some Ukraine supporters found disappointing.
Garry Kasparov, the former international chess champion and Soviet-era dissident, accused McCarthy online of placating “his MAGA leash-holders” and not wanting America to hear from Zelenskyy.
To placate his MAGA leash-holders, McCarthy whines about aid to Ukraine that destroys the Russian military for a tiny fraction of the US defense budget & no American blood, but then doesn’t want anyone to hear from the man in charge of spending that money. https://t.co/LOQSomEM3x
— Garry Kasparov (@Kasparov63) September 21, 2023
McCaul defended McCarthy, saying: “The speaker, like me, has shown strong support, but we’re frustrated with the administration’s slowness in the weapons.”
McCarthy told Punchbowl News there was no time for Zelenskyy on this visit to make another speech before members of Congress, as he did in December. (A CNN reporter posted a picture that McCarthy took with Zelenskyy and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., in the morning meeting.)
Another member of the GOP conference, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), cited her fear of a supplemental spending bill including Ukraine aid as a reason to vote to stall a separate defense bill from coming to the House floor.
And Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said McCaul’s idea of attaching ATACM and F-16 authorizations to a spending bill would only result in sinking the entire legislation.
Meanwhile, in the Senate ― where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have presented a united front on supporting Ukraine ― the reception was much different.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) posted that Zelenskyy received two standing ovations during his presentation as he met with senators in the Old Senate Chamber.
Firefighters extinguish a blaze at an industrial area after a missile attack Thursday in Kyiv, Ukraine.
But Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a longtime critic of Ukraine aid, wasn’t offering any such goodwill. He posted a message saying “This is our flag,” followed by a U.S. flag emoji, and “This one isn’t,” followed by a Ukrainian flag emoji.
Zelenskyy himself remains politically popular, even if his reception at the Capitol this time was muted. An August poll commissioned by pro-Ukraine group Razom for Ukraine found Zelenskyy had a net favorability rating of 30% among Americans, though a negative 10% with Republicans. Russian President Vladimir Putin registered a negative 81% in the survey.
McCaul remained optimistic that Ukraine will get what it needs, saying: “A majority of the majority want this.”
But he worried that continued dithering will erode that support, even as the country shows courage in fighting Russian aggressors. Ukrainian troops are trying to advance without air cover and have resorted to taking out land mines by hand at night, McCaul said.
“A stalemate and a war of attrition is exactly what Putin wants,” he added.