Biden’s Ukraine visit exposes GOP fault lines

Associated Press/Evan Vucci
President Biden checks his watch as he goes over his speech marking the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine after a surprise visit to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday, February 20, 2023 in Kyiv. (Associated Press/Evan Vucci)

While President Biden projected that the U.S. is united in backing Ukraine during a surprise visit to Kyiv on Monday and in Poland on Tuesday, the Republican response to his trip exposed division in the party on Ukraine support as the war fighting off Russian invasion hits the one-year mark this week.

That forecasts tricky political dynamics for Republicans when getting any future aid for Ukraine through a divided Congress and GOP majority, as some polls show public support for major U.S. involvement in the war ticking down.

“We’re seeing kind of a rethinking of foreign policy in the Republican Party, in particular, where we’re still trying to sort out what the kind of the new paradigm for Republican foreign policy is going to be,” said John Byrnes, deputy director of Concerned Veterans for America, which has been more skeptical of increased funding and weaponry to Ukraine.

On one end of the spectrum, firebrand Republicans criticized Biden for visiting Ukraine and called for an end to Ukraine funding.

“They need to be encouraging diplomatic solutions,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said of the Biden administration on Fox Business on Tuesday. “They’re going to ratchet it up … You’re going to see more and more people die through violent means.”

Biden’s visit to Ukraine inspired Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to call for a “national divorce,” tweeting that, “We don’t pay taxes to fund foreign country’s wars who aren’t even NATO ally’s.”

On the other end, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed Biden in projecting support for Ukraine at the Munich Security Conference last week, declaring that “reports about the death of Republican support for strong American leadership in the world have been greatly exaggerated.” 

GOP leaders on top committees have also been pressing Biden to provide heavier weapons to Ukraine and emphasizing the strong bipartisan backing for the country.

“We need to throw everything we can into this fight so that they can win,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said Sunday on CNN in a joint appearance with House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner (R-Ohio), adding that “momentum is building for this to happen.”

A portion of Republicans did not directly criticize U.S. support for Ukraine, but chastised Biden for focusing on the war rather than domestic issues like the East Palestine, Ohio, chemical spill or policies surrounding U.S. border security. 

“I and many Americans are thinking to ourselves, ‘OK, he’s very concerned about those borders halfway around the world. He’s not done anything to secure our own borders here at home,’ ” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said Tuesday on Fox News. “We have a lot of problems accumulating here.”

Despite that, Biden asserted Tuesday during a speech in Warsaw, Poland, that Americans are lined up behind Ukraine.

“The American people are united in our resolve as well,” Biden said. “All across my country, in big cities and small towns, Ukrainian flags fly from American homes. Over the past year, Democrats and Republicans in our United States Congress have come together to stand for freedom. That’s who Americans are, and that’s what Americans do.”

Byrnes said public polling “doesn’t scream to me overwhelming support for long-term continued intervention.”

A January Associated Press poll found just 41 percent of Republicans supported sending government funds directly to Ukraine, down from 48 percent in May 2022. 

Overall, 17 percent of U.S. adults said the U.S. should have a major role in the Russia-Ukraine war and 53 percent saying the U.S. should have a minor role, with 23 percent saying no role. That is a decrease in support from May 2022, when 32 percent were in favor of the U.S. having a major role, 49 percent in favor of a minor role, and 19 percent said no role.

“We’d like a realistic conversation about how this war ends,” Byrnes said. “We would love to see the Ukrainian government acknowledge the fact that it has to negotiate its way out of this at some point and see some terms on the table of what they would be willing to accept, just to begin the conversation.”

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said last year that there will be no “blank check” to Ukraine, and McCaul echoed that statement when supporting a resolution from Greene last year to audit Ukraine funding. But fractures remain on the issue of sending heavier military equipment to Ukraine or economic and military aid to the country, in general.

Any issue of more aid to Ukraine will likely not be an immediate problem for Republican congressional leaders. Congress approved around $45 billion in aid to Ukraine in December, bringing the total authorized to more than $100 billion.

“For the opposition party to not have a common picture of a foreign policy goal on a major question of the day definitely leaves a lot of uncertainty,” Byrnes said.

But others say that they expect a largely united front, even if there are some GOP squabbles.

“The House is always rough & tumble, but new members are in an educational period now and we’ll see how that shakes out. Now that the administration has to brief House Republicans after ignoring them for the first year of the war, let’s see how the GOP votes,” Peter Rough, senior fellow and director of the Center on Europe and Eurasia at Hudson Institute, told The Hill in an email.

While McCarthy would likely strive to get enough GOP support in a slim majority to push through any measure related to Ukraine support without the need for Democratic votes, Democratic support for Ukraine means that he does not have to be completely reliant on his own party to make that happen.

“There will not be a unified Republican view on foreign policy until the party retakes the White House, at which point the new president will set out the next period of Republican foreign policy thought … I’d also caution that some percentage of Republican hesitation on Ukraine will reflect domestic politics more than skepticism of Ukraine,” Rough said.

Tags House Republicans Joe Biden Mike McCaul President Joe Biden russia Russia-Ukraine war senate republicans ukraine

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