While Zelensky’s appeals to keep U.S. money flowing to preserve democracy and fight tyranny resonated with most lawmakers from both parties, many of whom applauded him, a small group of hard-right Republicans aligned with former president Donald Trump and his geopolitical positions reacted differently. Some did not clap when he walked onto the House floor. Others made clear they disagreed with Zelensky or were outright critical of him. Some skipped the speech altogether.
Their postures underline a divide over Ukraine’s war with Russia among congressional Republicans that will take on greater significance starting early next year when the GOP assumes control of the House with a narrow majority. House Republicans will only be able to lose five votes from their own ranks next year and still pass legislation without Democratic support, casting the future of U.S. aid to Ukraine and the broader dynamic between Zelensky and the U.S. government into a state of greater uncertainty.
Zelensky’s speech came at a consequential legislative moment, as lawmakers prepare to approve a year-long $2 trillion government funding bill that includes about $45 billion in new funding for Ukraine. It’s the largest single amount dedicated to Ukraine by the United States to date, as fears mount in Congress that a House GOP majority might not approve future assistance packages. The Democratic-controlled Senate approved the sprawling funding bill Thursday afternoon, which included the support of 18 Republicans.
In a rare move, appropriators signed off on more than President Biden’s request of $38 billion to last through September, given the anxieties over the possibility of GOP blocks in the future. Once the $45 billion is approved by the House as early as Friday, the total price tag of aid sent by the United States this year will surpass $110 billion.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, congressional Republicans’ positioning on the war has varied. Many have been staunch supporters of sending billions of dollars to bolster Ukraine’s effort. “Continuing support for Ukraine is the popular mainstream view that stretches across the ideological spectrum,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week, making it clear he backs ongoing aid to Ukraine to deter Russia.
Others, such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), have leaned heavily into calls for greater scrutiny of how the money is being spent. “My position has never changed,” McCarthy said after Zelensky’s speech on Wednesday. “I support Ukraine, but I never supported a blank check. We want to make sure there’s accountability.”
And a limited and vocal group of hard-right GOP members allied with Trump and his “America First” approach, after years of more interventionist leanings being predominant in the party, have taken a different tack. Some have condemned sending military and economic aid to Ukraine, saying the assistance should be redirected to domestic crises.
“The American taxpayers are literally paying to prop up many countries all over the world in foreign aid, but America is virtually crumbling before our eyes,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said ahead of Zelensky’s speech, which she did not attend.
Democrats have dubbed Greene and others who have cast votes against expediting Ukraine aid and going after the Russian government as the “Putin Caucus,” a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump has praised Putin’s intelligence and strategies.
Some from the small group of Trump allies did go to Zelensky’s joint address Wednesday, including Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), and Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.), but they rarely stood during the dozen standing ovations throughout his speech. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a staunch critic of funding the war effort against Russia, did not attend Wednesday’s speech.
Some House Republicans such as Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who called Zelensky a “Ukrainian lobbyist,” said that if Ukraine demands more assistance before the end of the fiscal year, he hopes GOP leaders will hold distinct votes on the matter rather than tie them to must-pass legislation that often gets bipartisan support.
“I can’t predict what will happen the next term, but I hope we have separate votes on Ukraine aid,” Massie said Thursday.
Congressional GOP leaders hope to ease such demands by exercising more oversight of how assistance is being utilized.
Some House Republicans have agreed with the sentiment that more checks are needed before distributing additional funds or military equipment. Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.) said he plans to provide that transparency as the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman next year.
A glimpse of what that could look like came this month when the committee, under Democratic control, rejected a measure offered by Greene that would require the administration to send Congress all related documents and communications of U.S. assistance to Ukraine. All Republicans on the committee voted in support of the resolution.
There is bipartisan recognition that Ukraine will probably need more help from the United States over the next year. Biden is expected to announce his fiscal budget request in February, which Congress will debate until it funds the government in October.
In the Senate, support for additional aid for the Ukrainian effort remains strong among GOP lawmakers, despite some Republicans echoing the concerns of their House colleagues and calling for a stop to the aid. Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), who will probably be named the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee next year, was more than enthusiastic about supporting Zelensky’s efforts, often cheering loudly on the House floor throughout his speech.
“I’m ready to go to the front line!” she said after his speech, which she called “inspiring.”
Sen Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who voted against the overall funding bill, said he thought future aid would not be a problem when the House and Senate revisit the issue for the next fiscal year.
“If they continue to fight the way they are and make progress, then I think at the end of the day there’ll be support,” he said. “It won’t be easy to get there, but I’m guessing we’ll have support.”
Even some senators who are more in line with Trump politically do not oppose the aid entirely. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who has previously emphasized Ukraine aid “is not the most important thing,” said he admires what Zelensky has done for his country but thinks the United States should not “waste” any money there. He did not rule out future aid to the country, however.
“It’s part of our national security to support them, but we just have to make sure the money is lethal aid and we don’t waste any money,” he said.
Retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, said he thinks that the latest tranche of funding should last Ukraine until the end of the fiscal year, through next September, but that it’s possible the country could need additional funding sooner depending on Russian actions.
“I heard last night some Republicans saying, ‘We need to have an end date,’” Portman said. “It depends on Russia. We can’t decide what Russia is going to do. The only way to get Russia to the bargaining table is to continue to win on the battlefield.”
In the House, where the bigger obstacles for future aid packages to Ukraine are present, Republicans have already begun to think about scenarios for next year. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), a moderate who strives for bipartisanship, emphasized overcoming GOP blocks to help Ukraine is his “number one priority.”
House Democrats could help offset GOP dissenters if enough vote in favor of a clean funding bill for Ukraine spearheaded by the new GOP majority. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said it is imperative to continue aiding Ukraine, especially as it remains uncertain whether Republicans will choose McCarthy as their speaker next year.
“We can’t leave any uncertainty as to our shared resolve to see Ukraine succeed,” he said.
Some House Republicans emphasized that it is incumbent on the White House to avoid growing discontent against helping Ukraine among voters by continuing to inform the American public about where the funds are going and why it’s imperative to fight the Russians.
“There’s strong support for Ukraine. There’s no question about that. But where does it lead? And what is it for?” Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) asked. “If this president fails or … the administration fails to gather the necessary plan, direction, and what it means, then they will find that [the support] just vaporizes.”
Retiring Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) echoed the sentiment, noting that any support is “not a charitable contribution from America. This is a serious investment in [the] security of the whole world and in America as well.”
That exact message was one Zelensky delivered Wednesday night.
“Your money is not charity. It’s an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way,” Zelensky said. “We stand, we fight and we will win because we are united — Ukraine, America and the entire free world.”
Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.