Biden Visited Ukraine to Show Support. The U.S. Political Reality Is More Complicated

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Ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia invading Ukraine, the Biden Administration is signaling that American support for the beleaguered country will not waiver. “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia,” President Joe Biden said Tuesday after a surprise visit to Kyiv. His speech followed Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit to the Munich Security Conference, where she announced that the U.S. determined Russia has committed war crimes, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s meeting with NATO allies in Brussels, where he said the alliance was “more unified and more resolute than ever.”

Despite the Administration’s global stagecraft designed to emphasize solidarity with Ukraine, however, domestic politics are becoming increasingly complicated. Republicans have a slim majority in the House of Representatives with a vocal faction resolutely opposed to increased U.S. funding going toward Ukraine, which could hamper Biden’s ability to continue delivering the support he has vowed.

Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Matt Gaetz of Florida, and other hard-line conservatives who opposed Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s election last month until they extracted a series of concessions have been the most adamant. “I will work with anyone and everyone to … stop sending money to Ukraine, like somehow that’s a bigger priority than what’s happening to our people,” Gaetz has said.

Since Biden’s trip to Ukraine became public, it has become a rallying cry among the MAGA base to lambaste the President for visiting Kyiv before East Palestine, Ohio, the site of a recent train derailment that resulted in the release of toxic chemicals. “Biden didn’t go to East Palestine, Ohio on President’s Day,” Greene tweeted. “He went to Ukraine, a NON-NATO nation, whose leader is an actor and is apparently now commanding our United States military to world war. We must impeach this America Last fool before it’s too late.”

On the surface, such opposition suggests Ukraine aid may be on the chopping block, given the GOP’s razor-thin House majority and the power the far-right bloc wields over McCarthy.

Read More: Inside the Basement Where an Entire Ukrainian Village Spent a Harrowing Month in Captivity

But antipathy to Ukraine support is by no means a consensus opinion among Republicans. Some of the most powerful GOP congressional leaders have applauded Biden for his Ukraine trip, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, and have expressed a desire to maintain American aid to help Ukraine prevail. They see Russia’s aggression—and defending Ukrainian sovereignty—as vital to the United States geopolitical interests.

“We have seen time and again the majority of Republicans and Democrats support our assistance to Ukraine,” says McCaul, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He has pushed the White House to release a plan for helping Ukraine stave off Russia for good, a move that he suggests could persuade some on-the-fence members to approve a larger aid package down the road. “The Biden Administration needs to lay out their long-term strategy,” he continues. “There are some members who would be more supportive if they saw a long-term strategy that was based on a Ukrainian victory rather than sending just enough support to prolong the war but not win it.”

Congress passed $40 billion in aid to Ukraine last May, drawing support from Democrats and Republicans, and later provided another roughly $47 billion in supplemental funding in the omnibus spending package last December. But there are likely to be more votes to come over the next year, perhaps on standalone bills and when Capitol Hill lawmakers have to pass the next federal budget. “The question in my mind is, how long is that funding going to last?” says a senior Democratic congressional aide. The battle is slated to reach an apotheosis in a matter of months, when Congress will have to address raising the debt ceiling and and hammer out a spending bill for the upcoming fiscal year.

The recent bipartisan votes supporting Ukraine aid packages lead some D.C. veterans to believe there’s hope that it will continue. “There’s some political constraints that might emerge in Congress,” says Eliot Cohen, a former State Department official in the George W. Bush Administration now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Marjorie Taylor Greene shoots her mouth off, but Mike McCaul is actually much more influential in that caucus and carries a lot more weight.”

While Greene, Gaetz, and their allies will have the votes to block more Ukraine aid, the inverse is also true: the Republicans who support that assistance will have similar leverage given the slim House majority. Some Hill insiders speculate that McCarthy may try to appease that right-wing part of the base with other deliverables—like tax cuts or reduced government spending on certain federal programs—to convince them to relent on allowing for more Ukraine aid to be included in the budget.

Still, Biden’s team recognizes that domestic politics changed once Republicans took over the House, and have worked not only to signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin that U.S. support won’t diminish, but also make the case to American voters.

“I do think the President is quite mindful that he and his team need to be out there making the case to the American people a bit more robustly in the face of growing questions,” says Matt Duss, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former foreign policy aide to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“It’s certainly much more of a challenge given that you’ve got a Republican controlled House with a very vocal right-wing faction that is raising questions about this aid,” Duss says. “We shouldn’t treat those questions as illegitimate. This is part of Congress’ job: asking tough questions about the provision of U.S. taxpayer dollars for Ukraine and everywhere.” He adds: “I happen to think there are good answers to those questions.”

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