U.S. lawmakers try to save Ukraine aid

The News

The leadership shakeup in the U.S. House of Representatives may mean the end of — or a significant delay in — U.S. security assistance to Ukraine. Lawmakers are already returning to a potential solution offered by the ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy himself: Tying Ukraine aid to action on border security to get it through Congress.

“I think it may very well take a recognition of that challenge at the southern border,” Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. told reporters. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. echoed that sentiment: “I think the only way to do Ukraine aid well is to couple it with a border bill,” he said.

It’s not only Republicans. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. acknowledged to reporters that combining Ukraine assistance with a border security package is “one of the likely paths” to passing more assistance for Kyiv.

But the idea might already be doomed. Heritage Action, the powerful advocacy arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, encouraged speaker candidates — some of whom are already skeptical of more aid — to reject the idea of combining border security measures with Ukraine funding.

Democrats are also exploring other options, like an arcane measure known as a discharge petition that would involve getting a majority of signatures in the House to force a vote on Ukraine aid on the floor. Two House Democrats floated the idea amid the chaos on Tuesday, and by Wednesday morning Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz. — an ardent supporter of Ukraine aid — said he had discussed it with counterparts on the House side.

“We need to do something,” Kelly told Semafor. “It’s hard.”

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The path forward for future Ukraine assistance was already murky after Congress passed a short-term funding bill over the weekend that didn’t include any of the $24 billion in aid the White House has asked for. The ouster of McCarthy, who expressed at least tentative support for helping Ukraine but oversaw a GOP conference increasingly divided on the issue, has created more uncertainty by freezing legislative action in the lower chamber and leaving a vacuum atop the GOP.

Republican opponents of more Ukraine assistance have argued that the Biden administration needs to spend more resources addressing domestic issues like border security. While those voices represent only a portion of Republicans on Capitol Hill, they reflect a growing sentiment among Republican voters.

So far, Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La. and House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio have each formally jumped into the race for the speaker’s gavel. Scalise has voted in support of Ukraine aid — including as recently as last week when the House overwhelmingly passed $300 million in assistance with about half of Republicans voting no.

Jordan, meanwhile, voted against that same bill and his position moving forward is somewhat in question. He told CNN he is “against” a Ukraine aid package, but House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas told reporters Jordan sent a different signal behind closed doors. Punchbowl News reported Thursday morning that Jordan told the Texas delegation he would want the Ukraine funding to be offset. Jordan also apparently raised the idea of using Ukraine aid as leverage to force movement on border security measures earlier this week, according to Politico.

Another potential candidate, Republican Study Chairman Kevin Hern, R-Okla., has demanded a briefing from the Biden administration on the “endgame” in Ukraine. Last week, Hern also proudly advertised that he was among those who opposed the first Ukraine aid package passed by Congress last year.

Morgan’s view

The idea of connecting Ukraine assistance to a more contentious issue like border security seems destined to fail to me. Republicans and Democrats are far apart on the border and immigration, so much so they haven’t been able to muscle through comprehensive change in decades. That Heritage Action is already lobbying against the idea probably kills it.

But the fact that Democrats like Blumenthal are now talking about this suggests it’s at least being considered — and that Ukraine supporters are willing to entertain more desperate options than they might have in the past.

Some House Democrats are already panning the idea, which McCarthy floated on CBS News over the weekend. “It is literally a life-or-death situation and you’re holding Ukraine hostage to try and resolve something that Congress has been trying unsuccessfully to resolve for 25 years? That’s not helping Ukraine,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. told me yesterday, just before McCarthy was forced out of his leadership position.

The Biden administration doesn’t love the idea, either: White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that Ukraine assistance and border security should not be “tied or one dependent on the other.”

Room for Disagreement

Rounds, a strong advocate for Ukraine, said he believed Congress could “get it done,” but that the challenge would be finding a way to use the appropriations process to change border policy.

The View From the White House

President Biden told reporters Wednesday that he planned to deliver a “major” speech to make the case that arming Ukraine is in the U.S. national interest, and suggested without elaborating that the administration had a fallback plan for a funding stream if Congress cannot pass more aid.

The White House has come under pressure (including from Ukraine supporters) to make a clearer argument for assistance and spell out the endgame for the war.

“It strikes me that there has been a spectacular failure of leadership on this from the administration,” Dalibor Rohac, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told Semafor. Unlike conservative critics of Ukraine aid, Rohac argued for a “Ukraine surge” in weaponry to change the balance on the battlefield.

The View From Europe

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Thursday that Europe would not be able to fill the gap if U.S. support for Ukraine dries up.

“Ukraine needs the support of the European Union ... but also the support of the US,” Borrell said in Granada. “Can Europe fill the gap left by the U.S.? Well, certainly Europe cannot replace the U.S.”