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Inside the House GOP effort to keep weapons flowing to Ukraine

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CQ-Roll Call

By Kylie Atwood, Jeremy Herb, Katie Bo Lillis and Melanie Zanona, CNN

After House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested last week that Republicans might pull back funding for Ukraine next year if they take the majority, the GOP leader has worked behind the scenes to reassure national security leaders in his conference that he wasn’t planning to abandon Ukraine aid and was just calling for greater oversight of any federal dollars, sources told CNN.

McCarthy told key Republican national security committee members — some of whom reached out to McCarthy — that his comments that Ukraine wouldn’t get a “blank check” in a Republican majority were being taken out of context, the sources said. Rather, McCarthy told his members he was simply saying that a GOP-led House would not automatically rubber-stamp a request from the administration for additional Ukraine aid.

“McCarthy was not saying, ‘We wouldn’t spend money.’ McCarthy was saying, ‘We’re gonna be accountable to the taxpayer for every dollar we spend,'” one GOP lawmaker familiar with McCarthy’s thinking told CNN. “A ‘blank check’ means that people get whatever they ask for. What we’re saying is there’s going to be some thought, there’s going to be accountability, and taxpayer dollars are going to be used appropriately.”

McCarthy’s effort to soothe the House’s senior defense hawks, which has not been previously reported, underscores the fine line the aspiring speaker is walking on foreign policy as the war in Ukraine appears poised to grind into a second year. But it also offers a preview of the types of policy and political battles to come between the establishment and pro-Trump wings of the GOP, presenting a tricky balancing act — and potential headaches — for Republican leaders in a House majority.

Ukraine has led to messy politics for Democrats as well. On Monday, Progressive Caucus leader Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state abruptly withdrew a letter pushing the Biden administration to pursue diplomacy in Russia’s war with Ukraine, an about-face following furious internal backlash from Democrats.

GOP sources told CNN they believe that only a small faction of Republican lawmakers — the midterm elections will determine how many — are opposed to funding Ukraine’s battlefield efforts. What’s more likely to likely face cuts under a GOP majority, sources said, is the economic assistance and other non-military aid going to Ukraine, like the aid money going to the United Nations to help Ukraine rebuild its country and the money going to USAID to support Ukraine’s budget.

If Republicans win back the House, GOP sources say they are likely to ramp up overall oversight of the billions of dollars in aid going to Ukraine, such as examining end-use tracking of weapons. CNN has previously reported that the Biden administration doesn’t have perfect visibility into how or where US-provided weapons are used once they cross the border into Ukraine.

‘Listening to Russian disinformation’

Still, senior congressional Republicans who support robustly funding Ukraine’s war are watching warily as some more isolationist-minded colleagues have become increasingly vocal in recent weeks that they will heavily scrutinize — if not outright oppose — US money for Ukraine.

Fifty-seven Republicans in the House and 11 in the Senate voted against the $40 billion Ukraine aid bill in May. Some vocal GOP opponents like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Chip Roy of Texas jumped on McCarthy’s recent comments to argue that a Republican majority should scale back aid to Ukraine.

The anti-aid crowd also has influential voices like Fox’s Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump Jr. who have advocated for cutting off aid to Ukraine altogether.

“They’re strong. Amongst Republicans, I call it the ‘Tucker Carlson’ effect,” the lawmaker said of House GOP skeptics. “I love Tucker on other issues, but he’s wrong on this. He’s listening to Russia disinformation. And he’s creating problems for us in our districts.”

McCarthy can’t afford to alienate or ignore the noisy skeptics in his conference who have raised concerns about indefinitely funding Ukraine’s war against Russia — whose votes he will need to become speaker, especially if Republicans win a narrow majority.

“McCarthy cracked the door open here. He is leaning more towards our direction of pulling back. You also have Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham banging the drum on this,” said a source familiar with the ongoing discussions about Ukraine aid who favors tighter purse strings.

A McCarthy spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Bloated bureaucracy’

Last week, McCarthy told Punchbowl News, “I think people are going to be sitting in a recession, and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine.”

The comments prompted frantic outreach on Capitol Hill from Ukrainians and European allies alike, sources told CNN, intensifying long-running concerns that a Republican majority in Congress threatens to hamper US support for Ukraine’s war against Russia.

They also led some GOP national security hawks to begin planning a campaign for after the midterm election to ensure that the US doesn’t abandon Ukraine. That includes preparing a combination of education for their new and skeptical colleagues as well as examining ways to increase oversight of where the money and weapons are going inside Ukraine.

To help convince skeptics, Republicans are looking to tap former Trump administration national security leaders as expert voices — rather than Biden administration officials. Some of the voices that Republicans are considering bringing in to speak to new members include former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger, sources said.

“They need to hear from people they trust. The administration isn’t necessarily the best messenger for this,” said one GOP congressional aide.

They’re also planning to hold briefings from Republican think tanks with conservative bona fides like the Heritage Foundation, congressional trips to the region and direct engagement with Ukrainian and European officials as part of an education campaign.

“I don’t think the issue is one of lack of support of aid from Ukraine. It’s a signaling that Republicans do things differently,” Rep. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican in line to chair the House Intelligence Committee next year, said in an interview with CNN.

Turner, who just returned from a bipartisan congressional meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine, argued the bills that Democrats passed this year — such as a $40 billion aid package in May — included extraneous funding that he criticized as a “bloated bureaucracy,” such as money that went to the UN.

“Kevin McCarthy supports providing weapons systems to Ukraine to continue to win on the battlefield,” Turner said in a roundtable with reporters on Monday.

Despite confidence among GOP hawks that they have the upper hand over the caucus’ more isolationist wing, lawmakers are beginning to lay the groundwork to convince new members in particular that the military support is vital spending.

Congressional Democrats on national security committees told CNN that McCarthy’s comments didn’t raise major alarm bells — yet — as they still believe there’s significant support for Ukraine among their Republican colleagues. One Democrat noted that Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell is a stalwart supporter of funding Ukraine’s war — and the Senate often gets its way in funding fights.

“There’s the Reagan block and there’s the Trump block. And the Reagan block wants to help,” said another House Democrat who works on national security issues. McCarthy, the Democrat said, was “signaling that he’s going to have resistance and it’s not going to be easy.”

The ‘Three Mikes’

In the House, the pro-Ukraine effort is likely to be led by the “three Mikes” poised to become committee chairmen: Turner of Ohio on Intelligence, Mike McCaul of Texas on Foreign Affairs, and Mike Rogers of Alabama on Armed Services.

Another key voice will be Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, a defense hawk who is expected to become House Appropriations chairwoman in a Republican majority.

If he becomes chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, McCaul is considering holding his first hearing next year on Russian war crimes, according to one congressional source, to hammer home the egregiousness of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

“We’ve got to give them what they need. The Ukrainians, when we give them what they need, they win,” McCaul said on Bloomberg TV last week. “I do think you have broad bipartisan support for what’s happening in Ukraine, but I think you’ll see if we get the majority, more oversight and accountability in terms of the funding and where the money is going.”

The defense hawks are expected to make the case that the war with Russia goes beyond Europe. They argue that the US needs Ukraine to win in order to deter China from invading Taiwan, for instance. One senior Republican noted that Iranian drones now being used on the battlefield show how the war extends far beyond Ukraine’s borders.

The Ukrainians are also likely to make their own case directly to Congress. Ukrainian legislators and other top officials have held meetings with their American counterparts since the war began, telling US lawmakers that it is cheaper to invest in Ukrainian defense now than to defend Europe against wide-ranging Russian aggression later.

‘Only for our country’

Ukraine skeptics both in Congress and on the campaign trail — along with influential outside voices — are preparing to ramp up their own campaign to try to curtail or outright stop the flow of US dollars to Ukraine.

Republican criticism of funding Ukraine has largely focused on the high costs of prolonging the war, as well as concerns about corruption in Ukraine and the need to devote more resources to domestic challenges. Earlier this month, the House Freedom Caucus wrote to McCarthy urging him to stand up a special inspector general on US involvement in Ukraine.

Greene, a far-right Georgia Republican, posted a video on Twitter last month saying, “There is a country’s border that he (Biden) cares about and it is not this country’s border, it is Ukraine’s border. I believe our American tax dollars need to be used only for our country while we have so many problems, security crises.”

After McCarthy’s comments last week, Rep. Jim Banks, an Indiana Republican who is seeking a House leadership post next year, tweeted, “A Republican-led House will put the needs of America first. We cannot continue with unlimited spending for any foreign nation while our people are struggling to get by here at home.”

The Senate GOP conference could also soon have new members who have been vocal opposing the aid, such as J.D. Vance, the Senate GOP nominee in Ohio. “I think we’re at the point where we’ve given enough money in Ukraine, I really do,” Vance told local Ohio television station 13abc last month.

But McConnell also weighed in last week with a statement urging the Biden administration and US allies to “be quicker and more proactive to get Ukraine the aid they need” — comments that were in stark contrast to McCarthy’s statement and a sign that McConnell expects Senate Republicans to continue to support Ukraine’s war.

Dan Caldwell, vice president of foreign policy at Stand Together, a conservative non-profit that opposes open-ended spending in Ukraine, said those advocating for scaling back support to Ukraine are also gearing up to make their voices heard with new members in what’s expected to be a Republican-controlled Congress.

“During the first few weeks of the new Congress, new members will have a lot of people trying to convince them to not keep their campaign promises to oppose interventionist policies in Ukraine,” Caldwell said. “Our community will make the argument to these members that not only is pursuing a more realist approach to Ukraine good policy, it is also good politics — especially considering domestic economic challenges and more important foreign policy priorities in other parts of the world.”

Lame duck funding push

The looming fight over Ukraine aid could come even before Republicans take control of Congress next year, as the Biden administration is considering pushing through another major Ukrainian assistance package before the end of 2022, administration officials told CNN. So far this year, Congress has approved more than $65 billion in aid toward Ukraine. While the administration believes that Republicans are unlikely to completely curtail support for Ukraine, they see value in locking in support now before things could get more challenging.

“End of the year funding in Washington is going to be the wild, wild West of spending, especially if Republicans win the House,” Turner told reporters Monday, adding that Republicans could oppose a bill with extraneous items attached.

Regardless of what it can get approved during the lame-duck session, the Biden administration will likely have to come back to Congress at some point next year to ask for money.

While there is an acknowledgment that oversight will have to ramp up when reconstruction in Ukraine begins — which could be needed even before the war ends due to just how much help Ukraine will need — many congressional aides and administration officials believe that additional layers are not necessary at this time.

Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur argued there already is clear accountability when it comes to weapons getting onto the battlefield.

“I understand their position to have more accountability. I also have information from (Joint Chiefs Chairman) Gen. (Mark) Milley, who said to me that there is more of an accountability as ever, regarding the help sent to Ukraine, because they even have a barcode system to track basically each shipment which was sent to Ukraine,” he said. “I believe this is exactly what also Republicans want to hear that yes, there is accountability.”

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