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Zelensky address meets divided House GOP preparing to grab purse strings

House Republicans offered mixed reactions to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to a joint meeting of Congress, foreshadowing a bumpier road that his country will face in securing future U.S. aid once the GOP takes control of the House in a few weeks.

Republican supporters of aiding Ukraine’s efforts against Russia praised Zelensky’s speech. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) said that Zelensky had “overwhelming support” in the chamber and will “continue to have that.” 

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who is set to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee next year, expressed hope that the speech would help push a more aggressive focus from the U.S. on military assistance to Ukraine.

“Every time we get them what they need, they win. But this administration is so concerned about being provocative,” said McCaul. “We are not doing what we need to do to have them win this thing more quickly. The longer this thing drags out, the more difficult it’s going to be, and we’re not giving them what they need.”

But critics of Ukraine aid showed little openness to being open to changing their minds because of the speech.

Walking into the address, Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) said that he did not think Zelensky should be speaking from the House floor.

“We should be focused on trying to contain the war, not expand the war. And this kind of sends the message we’re kind of OK with expanding the war. And I think we should be sending a different message,” Davidson said.

He followed up with a quip about Zelensky’s more casual-looking olive green military garb: “He’s dressed more for the auditorium, so he should be talking to us down there.”

Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) sat out most standing ovations during the speech (though Boebert stood while Zelensky entered the chamber). Boebert said in a video after the speech that she would not support any more money to Ukraine until there is a “full audit” of where already approved funds have gone.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., left, and Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., arrive before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has said that House Republicans will not send a “blank check” to Ukraine in the next Congress, carefully navigated the optics of Zelensky’s visit. Many of the right-wing House GOP critics of aid to Ukraine are also withholding support for his Speakership.

McCarthy attended a meeting with Zelensky and other top congressional leaders — Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — ahead of the speech and was part of the Escort Committee bringing the president into the chamber. He joined in standing ovations. But he was not present for another media-centric moment with the other three congressional leaders walking into the Capitol rotunda.

Standing in front of some of his fiercest supporters as well as his admirers, Zelensky made a direct argument in favor of aid to his country.

“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.

But he likely had little chance of swaying the fiercest GOP opponents to aid.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) tweeted that he was not in Washington, D.C., and would not attend the speech of a “Ukrainian lobbyist.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who did not attend the address, tweeted earlier in the day that global foreign aid is like Americans being “raped everyday at the hands of their own elected leaders.”

According to the Hill pool, only 86 of 213 House Republicans attended the speech Wednesday evening. More than a third of House members had active letters to vote by proxy on Wednesday, with many worrying about weather disrupting travel just before Christmas.

GOP frustration about congressional negotiators rushing to pass an omnibus funding bill before a Friday government shutdown deadline also fueled sour reactions to Zelensky appearing before Congress. The package includes $45 billion in aid to Ukraine.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said Zelensky’s speech was “more of the theater that has been orchestrated by the current outgoing Democrat leadership of the current Senate leadership in order to try to prop up a belief that $47 billion — again, with no debate at all — is just going to be magically created out of thin air and sent over to Ukraine.”

Republican skepticism of and resistance to Ukraine funding is layered. Some members oppose aid altogether based on an “America First” or anti-war philosophy. Others support more military aid but less economic and humanitarian aid, and still others believe the U.S.-Mexico border should be prioritized more.

But the House GOP is largely in agreement on probing where existing funds have gone. When the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted on a resolution from Greene to audit Ukraine funding earlier this month, every Republican voting on the panel supported it — though unified Democrats blocked the measure from advancing.

“The majority in both parties in both House and Senate support this effort, but they’re not going to if we don’t have accountability [and] transparency,” McCaul said. 

The outside group Heritage Action, the advocacy arm of the conservative think tank, was particularly influential in getting Republicans to vote against a $40 billion Ukraine aid package in May. It is also lobbying against the omnibus as well as the Ukraine measures outlined in it.

“While the situation in Ukraine is serious, the United States still lacks a coherent vision and strategy in the region. Spending an additional $47 billion in assistance – with only 62% of that assistance going to Ukraine military assistance – without adequate oversight and accountability for the aid is a misuse of taxpayer money,” Jessica Anderson, executive director of Heritage Action, said in a statement. “The next Congress must have an honest and transparent debate about the size and scope of U.S. assistance, and demand equal cooperation from all of Ukraine’s European neighbors.”

Supporters of Ukraine are confident that there will still be overwhelming support for aiding the country in the next Congress, despite the minority of vocal critics. But any future assistance packages could have to look different to get that support.

“I think the right path, moving forward, is to demand a hell of a lot more share of the humanitarian aid burden be burdened by European countries, while the United States continues to focus on the fight itself, the right rep weaponry, backfilling that weaponry,” said Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas). 

Al Weaver and Mychael Schnell contributed.

Tags Brian Fitzpatrick House Republicans Kevin McCarthy Lauren Boebert Michael McCaul Mike McCaul Russia-Ukraine war ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky Volodymyr Zelensky Warren Davidson Zelensky speech
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