President Joe Biden said Sunday that American aid to Ukraine will keep flowing for now as he sought to reassure allies of continued U.S. financial support for the war effort. But time is running out, the president said in a warning to Congress.
"We cannot under any circumstances allow American for Ukraine to be interrupted," Biden said in remarks from the Roosevelt Room after Congress voted late Saturday to avert a government shutdown by passing a short-term funding package that dropped assistance for Ukraine in the fight against Russia.
"We have time, not much time and there’s an overwhelming sense of urgency," he said, noting that the funding bill lasts only until mid-November. Biden urged Congress to negotiate an aid package as soon as possible.
"The vast majority of both parties — Democrats and Republicans, Senate and House — support helping Ukraine and the brutal aggression that is being thrust upon them by Russia," Biden said. "Stop playing games, get this done.’’
But many lawmakers acknowledge that winning approval for Ukraine assistance in Congress is growing more difficult as the war grinds on. Republican resistance to the aid has been gaining momentum in the halls of Congress.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (L) walks with U.S. President Joe Biden down the colonnade to the Oval Office during a visit to the White House September 21, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Evan Vucci-Pool/Getty Images)
Voting in the House this past week pointed to the potential trouble ahead. Nearly half of House Republicans voted to strip $300 million from a defense spending bill to train Ukrainian soldiers and purchase weapons. The money later was approved separately, but opponents of Ukraine support celebrated their growing numbers.
Then, on Saturday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., omitted additional Ukraine aid from a measure to keep the government running until Nov. 17. In doing so, he closed the door on a Senate package that would have funneled $6 billion to Ukraine, roughly one-third of what has been requested by the White House. Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the stopgap measure, with members of both parties abandoning the increased aid for Ukraine in favor of avoiding a costly government shutdown.
Biden said that deal was made to keep the government running and he worked to reassure U.S. allies the funding would be there.
"Look at me," he said turning his face to the cameras at the White House. "We’re going to get it done. I can’t believe those who voted for supporting Ukraine -- overwhelming majority in the House and Senate, Democrat and Republican -- will for pure political reasons let more people die needlessly in Ukraine."
The latest actions in Congress signal a gradual shift in the unwavering support that the United States has so far pledged Ukraine in its fight against Russia, and it is one of the clearest examples yet of the Republican Party’s movement toward a more isolationist stance. The exclusion of Ukraine funding came little more than a week after lawmakers met in the Capitol with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who sought to assure lawmakers that his military was winning the war, but stressed that additional aid would be crucial for continuing the fight.
After that visit, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said that one sentence summed up Zelenskyy's message in his meeting with the Senate: "‘If we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war," Schumer said.
Yet, McCarthy, pressured by his right flank, has gone from saying "no blank checks" for Ukraine, with the focus being on accountability, to describing the Senate's approach as putting "Ukraine in front of America." He declined to say after the vote on government funding whether he would bring aid for Ukraine up for a House vote in the coming weeks.
"If there is a moment in time we need to have a discussion about that, we will have a discussion completely about that, but I think the administration has to make the case for what is victory," McCarthy said.
In the Senate, both Schumer and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky pledged to move quickly to try and pass the full White House request. But it was clear that goal will be increasingly difficult as more rank-and-file GOP senators have questioned the aid or demanded that it be attached to immigration policy that would help secure the southern border — echoing similar demands in the House.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican who voted for the spending bill after the Ukraine aid was stripped out, said that Congress needs to have "a conversation with the American public." He said he was optimistic after seeing the money taken out of the bill.
"In my state, people want to be helpful to Ukraine, but they also want to be helpful to Americans," Scott said. "And so they want to really understand how this money has been spent."
Democrats said they were disappointed by the lack of Ukraine funding, but expressed determination that they would get the aid to the war-torn country.
"We will not stop fighting for more economic and security assistance for Ukraine," Schumer said after the bill passed.
Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he would like to send a clear message to the world about U.S. support for Ukraine by passing legislation, but believes the Pentagon has "enough draw-down money" to last through December. He said he believes McCarthy still supports funding for Ukraine.
"I think he's dealing with a caucus that's got fractures that he has to deal with and none of them can be ignored when you've got a four-seat majority and 15 nuts in the conference," Rogers said, referring to far-right lawmakers who have staunchly opposed funding for Ukraine.
Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he heard McCarthy tell Zelenskyy during his visit that "we will give them what they need."
"Unfortunately, the message that speaker and the former president is sending is that they can't be relied upon," Meeks said, adding a reference to former President Donald Trump, who has called on Congress to withhold additional Ukraine funding until the FBI, IRS and Justice Department "hand over every scrap of evidence" on the Biden family’s business dealings.
The U.S. has approved four rounds of aid to Ukraine in response to Russia’s invasion, totaling about $113 billion, with some of that money going toward replenishment of U.S. military equipment that was sent to the frontlines. In August, Biden called on Congress to provide for an additional $24 billion.