The Biden administration is scrambling to find a way to keep U.S. weapons flowing to Ukraine in its war with Russia after the ouster of the Republican House speaker put future assistance to Kyiv in serious jeopardy.
The morning after the Houseousted Rep. Kevin McCarthy as speaker, President Joe Biden told aides he wanted to deliver a speech about Ukraine to make the case for why it was in America’s interest to provide further aid to Ukraine, a senior administration official said.
Biden later told reporters about his plans for a “major speech” about the importance of arming Ukraine and acknowledged he was concerned about the effect of the political upheaval in the House on future U.S. support.
“It does worry me,” Biden said. “But I know there are a majority of members of the House and Senate and both parties who have said that they support funding Ukraine.”
He also suggested there may be more options to ensure continued weapons deliveries to Ukraine, saying, “There is another means by which we may be able to find funding for that,” but he did not elaborate, and it was not clear how much funding was available.
Kevin McCarthy says he won’t seek speakership again after ouster
Oct. 4, 202306:35
Lawmakers and administration officials are keenly aware that the clock is ticking, and Ukraine could suffer setbacks on the battlefield if the flow of U.S. arms and artillery and other ammunition is disrupted.
“Everything is completely uncertain right now, and it’s just impossible to predict how this will play out,” a Republican congressional aide said.
As the administration examined how to shift other funds to Ukraine and to look to allies to possibly bridge any gap, top national security officials, including the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown, were due to brief Biden about Ukraine in the Oval Office on Thursday, the White House said.
Biden spoke to world leaders Tuesday to reassure them that Washington remained committed to helping Ukraine defend itself, despite the power struggle unfolding in Congress.
Administration officials said that even though a vocal minority in Congress was wary of more assistance for Ukraine, there was still majority support in both chambers to keep weapons, ammunition and other aid moving to Kyiv. Biden has argued that Ukraine is a key battleground in a global struggle between democracies and authoritarian regimes, like Russia’s.
“There is still strong bipartisan support for aid to Ukraine, but we don’t take it for granted,” another senior administration official said.
However, McCarthy’s short tenure as speaker demonstrated that a minority of hard-line lawmakers can shape the congressional agenda and undermine the legislative priorities of the majority.
Even before McCarthy was voted out Tuesday, political support for billions more in military aid had increasingly been in doubt.
A series of military and economic aid packages for Ukraine — totaling about $110 billion — have won broad support in Congress since Russia invaded its neighbor in February 2022, but the political winds have gradually shifted. A growing number of Republican House members have questioned or opposed additional aid, arguing that Congress should focus on securing America’s borders and other domestic problems.
Proposed additional funding for U.S. aid to Ukraine was stripped out of last week’s compromise deal to avert a government shutdown. The outcome was a deep disappointment to Ukraine, whose president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, met with lawmakers and Biden less than a month ago to shore up support.
For Biden, U.S. aid to Ukraine carries big political stakes as he prepares to run for re-election.
Biden and his team have pointed to his ability to unite the U.S. and its allies around supporting Ukraine as one of his crowning achievements in office. And he has warned that nothing less than the current world order is at risk if that support wanes and Russian President Vladimir Putin succeeds in waiting out Western political will.
But Biden has struggled to win over voters on the issue, as polls show public opinion is divided and support for Ukraine is softening.
Public support for arming Ukraine — which was once at high levels — has eroded in recent months. A Sept. 24 ABC News poll found that 41% of Americans believe the U.S. is “doing too much to support Ukraine,” compared to 33% in February.
In the Senate, senior Republicans and Democrats vowed Wednesday to secure further funding for Ukraine, which has relied heavily on U.S. and European weapons and other gear to fight a much larger Russian force.
“Here in the Senate, we are going to be working in a bipartisan way to continue delivering the support our Ukrainian allies are counting on,” Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a joint statement. Murray is the chair and Collins the ranking Republican on the powerful Appropriations Committee.
They issued their statement after the committee received a classified briefing on Ukraine earlier Wednesday.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, said assistance to Ukraine is “still a major priority” with bipartisan backing.
“I think the majority of the members of both parties still support it. We need some direction from the administration as to how they intend to go forward,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he has spoken to McConnell and “we’re going to work together to get a big package done.”
Deputy Defense Department press secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters Tuesday that the administration has “enough funding authorities to meet Ukraine’s battlefield needs for just a little bit longer, but we need Congress to act to ensure there is no disruption in our support, especially as the department seeks to replenish our stocks.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said a decision to cut off U.S. support would have devastating consequences for America’s national security and the world.
“If Putin is allowed to get away with the destruction of the neighbor, he will not stop,” Graham said, adding that it would lead to “a war with NATO.”
He added that the Senate “should lead by example” and put together a bipartisan package that would fund border security and aid for Ukraine.
Western aid for Ukraine will take center stage at meetings with U.S. allies next week in Europe, where America’s appeals for more support for Kyiv will take on added urgency given the tumult in Washington, officials said.
When Congress last week dropped additional aid to Ukraine from the continuing resolution to fund the government, White House officials privately expressed concern that Ukraine aid would be delayed and that the infighting over it in Washington was playing into Putin’s hands.
But officials said they believed it was a matter of when — not whether — Congress would approve additional assistance. Now, the administration is far less certain, as at least one of McCarthy’s potential successors, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, opposes sending more aid to Ukraine.
A group that strongly supports arming Ukraine, Republicans for Ukraine of the organization Defending Democracy Together, recently graded lawmakers’ stances on the issue and gave Jordan an “F.”
Republican Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the House majority leader, who is also vying for the speakership, got a “B” from the group.
Jordan is a loyal ally of former President Donald Trump, who has expressed skepticism about supporting Ukraine and signaled that he would end the flow of assistance. Trump has said that if he were re-elected, he could end the war in 24 hours.
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said a House speaker who opposes aid for Ukraine “would be a disaster for the U.S. and the world.”
“This turbulent situation in the House just generates so much uncertainty,” Reed told NBC News. “That’s a threat.”
Dan De Luce
Dan De Luce is a reporter for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
Peter Alexander is chief White House correspondent for NBC News.
Kelly O’Donnell is Senior White House correspondent for NBC News.
Julie Tsirkin is a correspondent covering Capitol Hill.
Frank Thorp V
Frank Thorp V is a producer and off-air reporter covering Congress for NBC News, managing coverage of the Senate.
Carol E. Lee
Carol E. Lee is an NBC News correspondent.
Courtney Kube and Abigail Williams contributed.