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The fate of Ukraine funding lies in the balance with speaker's race

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (center) walks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., (left) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y. on September 21. Zelenskyy made his renewed case for American aid to Ukraine to a deeply divided Congress.
Mark Schiefelbein
/
AP
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (center) walks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., (left) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y. on September 21. Zelenskyy made his renewed case for American aid to Ukraine to a deeply divided Congress.

The next speaker of the House will have the power to decide what policies come up for a vote in the House of Representatives, leaving funding for U.S. involvement in Ukraine in the balance.

Last week, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., made a last-minute decision to move ahead with a short-term government spending bill without the $24 billion for military, humanitarian and economic aid for Ukraine requested by President Biden. That move avoided an impending government shutdown but it may have doomed any future funding.

McCarthy lost his job days later after hardline members turned on him for passing a spending bill with the support of Democrats. Now as House Republicans choose his successor, each candidate is under the same intense pressure from far-right members who ousted McCarthy.

Roughly half of House Republicans recently opposed a relatively small $300 million aid package for Ukraine and support for further spending is even less predictable. The issue also divides the three potential candidates who have emerged so far, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., and Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Okla.

Jordan and Scalise are officially in the running and Hern has yet to decide. While others may still enter the race, the future speaker will need to win the support of 218 members and Ukraine is expected to be a significant factor.

Where the speaker candidates stand

Jordan told reporters Wednesday that he was "against" moving forward with an aid package for Ukraine. "The most pressing issue on Americans' minds is not Ukraine," he said. "It is the border situation, and it's crime on the streets. And everybody knows that. So let's address those."

Jordan andHern have both consistently voted against Ukraine funding since the war began, and both voted against the $300 million in aid that was separated from the Defense bill last week.

Scalise, however, did vote for the $300 million in aid last week, as well as $40 billion in supplemental funding for Ukraine in 2022.

Republicans are divided

Ukraine aid was one of several sticking points among House Republicans as they tried to coalesce around government funding bills last month. There are a number of members in the conference who do not support any further assistance to Ukraine.

Others say they are sympathetic to the cause, but have concerns about oversight and potential corruption in the Ukrainian government. Republican leadership removed $300 million of Ukraine aid when the divide over that funding threatened their ability to pass the entire Defense Department appropriations bill.

Leaders decided instead to bring that$300 million up for a standalone vote — 101 Republicans supported it and 117 Republicans opposed.

When McCarthy introduced a short-term government funding measure last week to avoid a shutdown, there was no money for Ukraine.

Democrats said they were disappointed the Ukraine money did not make it into the stopgap, but they were also optimistic that McCarthy would move forward with the aid separately. Rep. Jim McGovern, the top Democrat on the House Rules Committee, told reporters "I trust that we'll figure out a way" to pass more funding.

Top Democrats in the House released a statement saying, "When the House returns, we expect Speaker McCarthy to advance a bill to the House Floor for an up-or-down vote that supports Ukraine, consistent with his commitment to making sure that Vladimir Putin, Russia and authoritarianism are defeated."

But now that McCarthy has been voted out, Republicans have to choose his replacement before any work can be done to pass appropriations on the floor — for Ukraine or otherwise. And there's no guarantee that McCarthy's successor would agree to advance Ukraine aid at all. Which brings us back to his potential replacements.

An unclear path ahead

President Biden said Wednesday that he is worried the speakership shake-up could threaten Congress's ability to deliver more Ukraine funding. "But I know there are a majority of members of the House and Senate, in both parties, who have said that they support funding Ukraine," he added, noting he planned to soon announce a "major speech" on the issue.

It's unclear whether House Republicans who oppose aid to Ukraine would vote for a new speaker who supports it. But outright opposition to Ukraine aid could also alienate the 100 or so Republicans who do want continued support. And as we saw this week, it only takes a handful of defectors from within the narrow majority to bring the chamber to a screeching halt.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who supports Ukraine funding, has suggested the money could be paired with border security measures to win passage in the House. He said the Senate should craft a package with Ukraine money, border security and natural disaster aid to send over to the House as part of the next short-term government funding measure.

"If they took up that package ... it would pass overwhelmingly in the House," he said. "You'd get more than half of the Republicans and virtually all Democrats."

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said he would support further Ukraine funding however it could pass — either as a standalone bill, part of a border package or attached to a larger appropriations bill.

"Regardless of who the speaker is, I believe that we will have appropriate funding for Ukraine. The question is what vehicle is the best vehicle and for what length of time," he said. "But for folks that are wondering whether or not we need to send a message to Putin, there is no misunderstanding about the fact that we will support Ukraine in their battle for freedom."

But even before McCarthy's ouster, Democrats brushed aside the idea of pairing Ukraine money with border security as unworkable, or political gamesmanship.

"Why are we playing politics with the future of the world order?" Sen. Chris Murphy said Saturday night. "Guess what? We haven't been able to do immigration reform in 40 years. It's hard. We should do it — but you shouldn't put the survival of Ukraine on the backs of our ability to break a 40-year logjam on immigration. It's just too important."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lexie Schapitl is a production assistant with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces and digital content. She also reports from the field and assists with production of the NPR Politics Podcast.