US Congress takes decisive step to approve aid to Ukraine after months of hurdles

Deputies will vote this Saturday on four bills, including assistance to Kiev, after Democrats joined moderate Republicans on a motion

Mike Johnson
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, during a weekly press conference in Washington, this Tuesday.Michael McCoy (REUTERS)
Macarena Vidal Liy

A seemingly small step, a mere formality, for the U.S. House of Representatives, but a giant leap for war aid to Ukraine. After months of delays and dissenting votes, congressmen have authorized a vote this Saturday on the floor — where it will surely pass — on a bill allocating $60 billion (about 56 billion euros) for military and economic assistance to the Russian-invaded country. The passage is the result of an unusual alliance between moderate Republicans and Democrats to defeat the blockade of the group of ultra-conservative Republicans, opposed to allocating a single dollar more to Kiev.

In a highly unusual situation, more legislators from the Democratic minority, 165, voted in favor of the authorization than from the Republican majority proposing the measure, 151. The final result was 316 votes in favor to 94 against to decide on four bills: aid to Ukraine, aid to Israel, aid to allies in the Indo-Pacific and a fourth on U.S. national security measures, a mixed package that includes everything from a ban on TikTok if its Chinese parent does not put the app up for sale to an authorization to seize Russian assets.

Once submitted to a vote, these four measures are guaranteed to be approved, since they have the support of the entire Democratic caucus and the vast majority of Republicans. This alliance has unleashed the fury of the ultraconservative group, which is threatening to unleash an internal process to remove the Speaker of the House, his party colleague Mike Johnson - sponsor of these bills - for being “soft”, as they already did in October with his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy.

Everything in this process has unfolded in an unusual way, since September when the White House submitted what had been a mere formality in Congress: a request for extraordinary funds, contained in a budget bill, to continue military and economic aid to Ukraine and enable Kiev to repel the full-scale Russian invasion launched in February 2022. The request was opposed by Republicans who were skeptical about the transparency of the management of the funds, the duration and prospects of the war, and who felt that the money should be spent on other priorities within the United States. These objections were soon joined by the demand that, before worrying about Ukraine, the immigration issue had to be resolved, given the record flood of asylum requests at the southern border.

For months, the funding request, now included in a $100 billion-plus national security bill that also included $14 billion for Israel, and various earmarks for Taiwan and Asian allies, as well as for beefing up security on the southern border, languished in the halls of Capitol Hill. Democrats and Republicans negotiated for weeks on a complex deal that combined aid to Kiev with immigration reform. The White House urged a yes, and recalled that most of those funds are invested in U.S. arms companies. Meanwhile, there were increasingly urgent appeals from Ukraine, and worsening news from the front about the availability of weapons and the ability to cope with emboldened Russian forces.

The Trump torpedo

But when the two parties were singing victory over a reform agreement in January, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke out against it with a verbal torpedo of his own: the measure was — according to him — “terrible”. In a matter of days, and in a spectacular political coup, his entire party was of the same opinion. Back to square one.

In February, the measure, without the border provisions and reduced to $95 billion, was finally approved in the Senate, where the Democrats have a majority. In the House, Speaker Mike Johnson, who had replaced McCarthy in October with the votes of the ultraconservatives, was dragging his feet. There was no chance that the bill, as it came from the Senate, could receive a yes from his chamber: in a highly polarized political climate where collaboration between the parties is almost taboo, and with a Republican party that counts its majority over the Democrats on the fingers of one hand, every vote from the hard wing is necessary. A hard wing that, moreover, controls the rules committee, the body that must give final authorization to move any bill to the floor.

Johnson, on the wing of the “Ukrainian-skeptic” Republicans, argued that priority should be given to voting on this year’s budget bills. Once these were passed, he argued that the renewal of FISA, the law that authorizes surveillance measures for counterespionage without the need for judicial authorization and which the House passed earlier this month, should be tackled.

But two weeks ago, the intelligence services gave a series of classified briefings to MPs on the war situation in Ukraine. What they told, several lawmakers in attendance have been pointing out, was devastating. Without help now, Kiev could well lose the war sooner rather than later, with grave consequences for the United States.

More air defense for Kiev

The situation in Ukraine is worse than complicated. Russia is launching missiles and drones against civilian and energy infrastructure. Civilian casualties have increased and there are cities, such as Kharkov in the east of the country, virtually in darkness. NATO allies pledged Friday to send more air defense to the Russian-invaded country, following calls by President Volodymir Zelensky and requests by the EU and NATO, which in recent days have urged their members to review their arsenals. Atlantic Alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday that the allies have identified more Patriot and SAMP/T air defense systems available. “I expect announcements in the near future,” Stoltenberg said after an urgent meeting with the defense ministers of the 32 NATO allies via videoconference, in which Zelenski also participated.

The Secretary General of the Alliance has reiterated that it is now a priority to send material to Ukraine, even at the cost of not complying with the minimum quantities established by NATO for allied arsenals — something that has long since ceased to prevail due to the war launched by Russia and the support for Kiev. However, it has not given details of who will send more air defense and when. The allies are finalizing their commitments, he said, reports Maria R. Sahuquillo.

Ukraine has ordered seven Patriot defense systems in an attempt to create a missile shield to repel Russian attacks. Germany has announced this week that it will send one of those it has and that it will be added to the two it had already delivered. In addition, there are countries such as Spain, Greece or the Netherlands that also have Patriot — in the case of Spain, one of its batteries is stationed in Turkey as part of a NATO mission — and other countries, such as France, have other systems. In addition, there are allies that have committed to send funds to buy air defense elements or spare parts, although this means that the material may take some time to arrive. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic has already purchased half a million artillery rounds as part of an initiative to source a million from countries outside the EU to send to Ukraine, NATO has confirmed.

Iran’s attack on Israel, in which U.S. aircraft played an important role in protecting the allied country from Tehran’s drones and missiles, completed the arguments. Last weekend, Johnson announced that he would bring the aid package to a vote in the House later this week.

To attract as many moderate skeptics as possible, and to bypass the ultraconservatives, the speaker, a man who likes to examine any problem from all possible angles, proposed to split the funding package: instead of one bill, four separate ones. The Ukrainian one has built-in measures for stricter supervision, to make it more tolerable among his bench.

“I’d rather send Ukraine bullets than have to send them U.S. soldiers,” Johnson has argued to explain his new pro-aid stance.

However, the Speaker’s proposal did not have enough votes among his parliamentary group. And among the hardliners, livid by Johnson’s maneuver, criticism of the leader of the House was growing, and a proposal to force his dismissal was gaining momentum.

But what was beginning to look like a thing of the past happened: a bipartisan agreement. Democrats, with an extreme interest in getting the funds through, partnered with Johnson to vote for all four bills. It was the first time such an alliance, between Democrats and a conservative Republican, had occurred in Johnson’s six months in office.

In Saturday’s vote, Johnson will again require the backing of Democrats. In Friday’s vote, in a sign of discontent in the most conservative wing, 55 Republican deputies have spoken out against. Something that heralds dark clouds on the horizon for the Speaker of the House: three deputies have already announced that they support a motion to dismiss him.

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