Lawmakers To Ukraine: Help Is On The Way — Just Don’t Ask Us When

Congress will be out of town next week, but lawmakers swear they have not forgotten Ukraine as the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion nears.

With more U.S. aid stalled in the Republican-held House, concerns that Ukraine could be left high and dry are growing as its war with Russia nears its second anniversary. And House lawmakers did little to ease those fears when they left Washington a day early Thursday for a scheduled week-and-a-half break without acting on a bipartisan $95 billion aid package.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle say the United States will ultimately come through and send Ukraine more weapons to defend itself in Europe’s bloodiest war since World War II.

But the one question they can’t answer is the precise path and timing for that aid to get through Congress.

“With all of our faults and warts, we’ve been there. And we are not leaving. We’re not going to abandon the Ukrainian people. I can assure the Ukrainian people we will not abandon them,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said Thursday at a news conference.

Pascrell was seconded by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), the only Republican at the event, held in advance of the second anniversary of the Russian invasion, which began Feb. 24, 2022.

“Absolutely. We want to stand with Ukraine,” Wilson said.

Several of Wilson’s and Pascrell’s colleagues will be in Germany this weekend at the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of high-level military and diplomatic officials from across the globe, and they will push the same message: The U.S. will come through with help for Ukraine.

But they’ll face the same questions that Pascrell and Wilson were dogged with Thursday: How? And when?

The Senate, which advanced the arms package for Ukraine that also includes weapons for Israel and Taiwan, is not set to return to Washington until Feb. 26. The House is not due back until Feb. 28. When they get back to Washington, lawmakers’ highest priority will not be Ukraine but instead simply keeping open parts of the government set to shut down at midnight March 1, as well as others that are set to go dark March 8.

At the same time, Ukraine reportedly faces shortages of ammunition and is at a disadvantage to Russia in terms of artillery, the main weaponry at the front lines. Russia also won a small but potentially strategic victory in the disputed province of Donetsk, where Ukrainian forces abandoned the town of Avdiivka after months of Russian attacks. It is the biggest victory for Russia since its forces took the eastern Ukraine town of Bakhmut in May 2023.

John Kirby, the White House’s national security communications adviser, told reporters Thursday that Avdiivka was in danger as a direct result of shortages affecting Ukrainian troops.

White House national security communications adviser John Kirby, accompanied by press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, addressed the risks of stalled Ukraine aid at Thursday's White House press briefing.
White House national security communications adviser John Kirby, accompanied by press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, addressed the risks of stalled Ukraine aid at Thursday's White House press briefing.
Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

“Because Congress has yet to pass the supplemental bill, we have not been able to provide Ukraine with the artillery shells that they desperately need to disrupt these Russian assaults,” Kirby said.

A recent social media post by Ukraine’s defense ministry highlighted shortfalls. During a Wednesday night attack, Ukraine intercepted only 13 of 26 missiles fired by Russia, the ministry said. That 50% success rate was well below past performances by the country’s mishmash air defense system, cobbled together with weapons from the United States and other allies, and came as Russia has intensified its air attacks in what officials fear is an attempt to deplete the country’s defense stocks.

But while Ukrainian troops fight off an emboldened Russian army, there appears little sense of urgency in official Washington. The possible routes for Ukraine aid would all require waiting until Congress comes back from its break, and some would see the Ukrainians wait even longer.

The quickest path would be for the House to simply approve the Senate package, which passed with an uncommonly bipartisan 70 votes in the 100-member Senate. But House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has shown little interest in this, saying that aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan should be looked at separately and that there are unanswered questions about Ukraine’s military plans.

Another path would be for 218 House members, with the vast bulk being Democrats, to sign a discharge petition to force the Senate bill to a floor vote. But some Democrats may not sign a discharge petition because they object to Israel aid due to the brutality of Israel’s attacks on Gaza, and getting Republicans to cross over and provide the last few needed signatures would be hard. And the whole process would take weeks.

“I don’t think a discharge petition is good,” Wilson said.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast Friday that a successful discharge petition would be a “complete evisceration” of Johnson’s power.

“I think Republicans that would be supportive of Ukraine wouldn’t support a discharge [petition] because it’s really going around leadership altogether,” he said.

Johnson could put the aid to a House vote under a procedure that would require two-thirds of the House to approve it, a level of support Ukraine boosters say it could easily meet.

“I believe that there are 300 members on the floor right now, or in the House right now, that would vote [for] passing the $95 billion,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). But allowing that vote would endanger Johnson’s speakership, as it could trigger a move to oust him by House Republican hard-liners. The move has already been threatened by Ukraine aid foe Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and was successfully used against Johnson’s predecessor as speaker, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who resigned from Congress on Dec. 31.

Another possibility would be to try to tack Ukraine and the other countries’ aid to a likely bill to temporarily fund the government and keep the lights on. Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, signaled potential openness to the idea when asked about it Wednesday.

“We don’t have any choice. We cannot leave Ukraine stranded, and they’re at a critical point,” Turner said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy joined German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at a Friday news conference in Berlin.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy joined German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at a Friday news conference in Berlin.
Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

But in September, House Republicans stripped Ukraine aid out of a stopgap bill, essentially daring Democrats to either reject the bill and risk being blamed for a government shutdown because of Ukraine or funding the government but not Ukraine aid. They chose funding the government.

If all of those ideas are off the table, changing the Senate bill and sending it back or approving an all-new bill after a shutdown is avoided would be the next step.

On Friday, a bipartisan group of House members unveiled a $66.3 billion aid bill with $47.7 billion for Ukraine. The bill would also give the secretary of homeland security a one-year authority to close the U.S.-Mexico border to inadmissible aliens if that was judged necessary to control the flow of migrants. It would also reinstate former President Donald Trump’s policy of keeping border detainees in Mexico while their admission cases are heard, a policy Mexico has said it won’t agree to.

McCaul hinted that April may be the hard deadline for Congress to decide whether and how to help Ukraine, as winter weather relents and it becomes easier for troops to maneuver.

“On the urgency, I think that there are many of us who understand that, but there are many who don’t,” McCaul said.

Ukraine may start another counteroffensive in April, he said, and he hoped it would have new capabilities by then with Ukrainian-piloted F-16 fighters, more cluster munitions and Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) rockets, a type of long-range artillery that could allow Ukraine to take out the Kerch Strait bridge, a key logistics point for Russia.

“I think [the] March 8 funding deadline, and then we deal with this. It would all happen prior to what would be the April counteroffensive,” he said. “Now they may have to delay it by a month or two, depending on how soon this can all be put in place.”

Negotiating an entirely new bill with the White House would take time, but it could help provide political cover for Republicans as Democrats and the White House have increasingly turned up the volume on the issue.

President Joe Biden on Friday took the GOP to task for leaving town for “a two-week vacation.”

“Two weeks! What are they thinking? My God, this is bizarre,” he said. “What are they doing?”

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