Joe Biden, Volodymyr Zelenskyy
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy heads to Washington even as Republican leaders in Congress differ on how to give more military and other aid to Ukraine. File photo

Political divide over Ukraine aid surfaces as Zelenskyy heads to Washington

President Joe Biden wants an additional US$ 24 billion in security and humanitarian aid for Ukraine but ratification of the request in Congress seems uncertain

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's visit to Washington this week comes at a critical juncture in his alliance with the US, as Republican leaders in Congress differ on how to provide more military and humanitarian aid to the country.

President Joe Biden wants an additional US$ 24 billion for security and humanitarian aid for Ukraine, in line with his promise to help the country for “as long as it takes” to oust Russia from its borders.

But ratification of Biden's request is deeply uncertain, thanks to a growing partisan divide in Congress on how to proceed.

Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has said that he wants more Ukraine aid to be debated on its own merits as a standalone bill, rather than attaching it to other priorities like government funding.

But leaders in the Senate would like to combine the Ukraine aid with other priorities, such as a short-term spending bill that will likely be needed to avoid a shutdown at the end of September.

Sharp differences

The differing approaches threaten to become a stalemate that could easily delay future rounds of American aid to Ukraine, raising the stakes for Zelenskyy.

The Ukraine president first visited Washington at the end of 2022, when he gave a surprise address to Congress.

Nine months later, with Republicans now in control of the House majority, there is growing wariness among voters about continued backing to Ukraine amid Russia’s refusal to end its invasion.

In Congress that scepticism is concentrated among House Republicans, where many want to halt the aid entirely.

Four rounds of aid

The US has approved four rounds of aid to Ukraine since Russia's invasion, totalling about US$ 113 billion, with some of that money going toward replenishing US military equipment sent to the frontlines.

Most members of the House and Senate support the aid, viewing the defence of Ukraine and its democracy as a global imperative.

Other issues

McCarthy has stressed the need for oversight of Ukrainian assistance but has also been critical of Russia.

In some ways, attaching Ukraine aid to other pressing matters could improve the odds of passing it quickly. Some lawmakers will be more inclined to vote for Ukraine assistance if it gets included with say, disaster relief for their home state.

But this would also deeply divide House Republicans.

Meanwhile, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has put Ukraine aid at the top of his to-do list, and has been speaking from the Senate floor for weeks about the urgency he sees to act.

McConnell has responded to critics who say that the US has borne too much of the burden on Ukraine by pointing to the assistance also flowing from Europe.

Sen Thom Tillis, R-NC, said he believes aid should be provided as soon as possible, and the legislative vehicle for that is unlikely to be a stand-alone bill.

US assistance

But Rep Ken Calvert, R-Calif., warned against adding Ukraine aid to the short-term spending bill. He said the focus needs to be on first passing an overall military spending bill as well as the other spending bills.

Rep Mike Garcia, R-Calif., said he's not necessarily opposed to more Ukrainian assistance, but he said the average American doesn't know how the war is going.

“Tell us what you're doing with the money, and let's have a debate on the floor about this funding and not ramming it down our throats,” Garcia said.

Rep Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, voiced confidence that Ukraine aid will continue.

“It has to pass. What I hear from our NATO that if the United States is not in, the whole thing falls apart,” he said.

(With agency inputs)

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