Ukraine aid splinters the GOP

By | May 17, 2022

The Republican establishment is striking back against a right flank attempt to turn its opposition to Ukraine aid into an “America First” talking point.

Congress’ nearly $40 billion package of help for the war-torn nation is taking heat from a growing number of conservative lawmakers, candidates, activists and even former President Donald Trump. Their case against spending on Ukraine’s battle against Russia is all about redirecting taxpayer money to domestic problems — but it’s alarming fellow Republicans who see it as a flawed argument and part of a disturbing trend toward isolationism.

That tension is putting the sprawling aid package, which is set to clear the Senate later this week, at the center of the ongoing battle to define the modern GOP. Much of the party, from the rank and file all the way up to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is forcefully rejecting the MAGA wing’s opposition to the aid as misguided.

Yet the nationalist camp, determined to create a questionable either-or choice between foreign assistance and help for Americans in need, is growing ever larger and louder. And senior Republicans are taking on their colleagues more openly, defending the $40 billion aid package at a critical time for Ukraine’s war effort.

“I don’t know what their alternative is. We’ve seen world wars started over less than what is happening in Europe,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who just returned from a swing through eastern Europe that included a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv. “Even though it’s a lot of money, it’s a small investment relative to a world war.”

Eleven GOP senators opposed advancing the Ukraine assistance bill on Monday, joining 57 House Republicans who rejected the measure last week. Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers aligned with Trump, in addition to high-profile House and Senate candidates, are slamming the aid package as reckless and out of step with Americans’ needs. Even the conservative Heritage Foundation, typically hawkish on foreign policy, came out against the Ukraine bill.

Some supporters, too, acknowledge concerns about the bill’s high price tag, which Trump cited as he blasted it last week. But GOP senators say it’s critical to backfill U.S. military stockpiles that have already been tapped for Ukraine, and ensure that there isn’t a funding gap that could allow Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s forces to stage a comeback.

That pro-Ukraine camp includes many Republican lawmakers who still enthusiastically back Trump. They see it as a simple matter of America’s role on the world stage, saying the U.S. must continue supporting Ukraine not only in the interest of defeating Putin, but also to convey to China that the U.S. won’t stand idly by in the face of threats to the liberal order.

“This is a question of whether we push back on Vladimir Putin while he’s weak and remove him from the international scene so that Europe can proceed without a war criminal, a madman, with nuclear weapons,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said. “On balance, it’s a very good thing to do to defend our friends who are standing for freedom and oppose a serial war criminal like Vladimir Putin.”

“A Putin victory is against our national security interests. Period,” added Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). “And that’s how we have to look at it.”

Trump-aligned potential 2024 presidential candidates were split on the vote, but a majority of them — including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) — rejected the former president’s position.

“There’s no doubt the price tag is too much, and there is excess waste put in this bill by the Democrats,” Cruz said in an interview. “At the same time, it is overwhelmingly in America’s national security interests for Russia and Putin to lose.”

Addressing the effort to backfill U.S. military stockpiles, Cruz added: “I don’t know how anyone can sensibly oppose that portion of the bill, which simply ensures America has the equipment to defend ourselves.”

Top Republicans are also justifying their vote for the Ukraine package by focusing on Beijing as the greater long-term threat to the U.S., given that China has implicitly threatened a military invasion of Taiwan. They say they need to deter potential land wars that extend past Ukraine into western Europe, in addition to a military conflict in Taiwan, which would cost even more money and lives over time.

“It’s in our national interest to make clear to both Putin [and] ultimately China that the United States isn’t going to stand by and do nothing if they decide to invade a smaller neighbor,” added Rubio. “That said, they can’t keep coming back up here every three months asking for $40 billion. There has to be both a clear plan and some well-established objectives about our role in this moving forward.”

Even so, Rubio’s and Cruz’s admissions that the size of the aid package — which has won unanimous backing from congressional Democrats — raises bloating concerns reflects a recognition that the MAGA-centric arguments against the Ukraine bill could bear political fruit. Opponents of the aid to Zelenskyy’s nation contend that the $40 billion would be better served on issues directly affecting Americans, like the southern border and the baby formula shortage. (The White House had requested $33 billion for Ukraine.)

“Spending $40 billion on Ukraine aid — more than three times what all of Europe has spent combined — is not in America’s interests. It neglects priorities at home (the border), allows Europe to freeload, short changes critical interests abroad and comes with no meaningful oversight,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), another possible 2024 contender, wrote on Twitter.

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who also opposes the aid package, lamented in an interview that “most Republicans lose their fiscal conservatism when it comes to defense being part of the equation. And I think the other side of the aisle plays us like a fiddle.”

“The only way that stops is if you have enough political will to say no to the stuff you really like,” he added.

That argument isn’t flying with most Republicans, who say throwing money at some domestic challenges won’t alleviate them.

“The administration, just by policy, could be fixing things on the border. The administration, by policy, could be fixing the issue of shortages we have in the supply chain,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).

McConnell addressed what he called the “isolationist” group head-on, saying the bill is “not some handout,” but rather “squarely” in our national security interest. Some have gone further, with the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s top Republican, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, saying a vote against the $40 billion aid package “is a vote for Putin.”

The far-right has responded in kind. Fox News host Tucker Carlson criticized Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) in sharply personal terms Monday night for Crenshaw’s criticism of fellow Republicans who oppose Ukraine aid. And Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has chided McConnell for leading the congressional delegation to Kyiv.

Kathy Barnette, who has gained steam in the Pennsylvania GOP Senate primary taking place on Tuesday, similarly went after McConnell with an “America First” argument.

“Why is Leader McConnell visiting Ukraine in the midst of the various crises right here in America?” she wrote on Twitter. “I believe it’s time to get elected officials in office who will put AMERICA FIRST… and that’s what I will do!”