Opinion: Funding for Ukraine is anything but certain after US elects new speaker

A new speaker of the House of Representatives has finally been elected ending weeks of chaos, but as Dr Thomas Gift (UCL Political Science) writes in The Conversation, the episode has created problems for Joe Biden’s military aid plans.

US president Joe Biden has proposed a new US$105 billion (£86.5 billion) national security aid package, including $61 billion for Ukraine.

Pleading with Congress to cast aside "petty, partisan, angry politics", on October 20 Biden reiterated his refrain that "if we don’t stop Putin’s appetite for power and control... he won’t limit himself just to Ukraine".

In normal "petty, partisan, angry" times, securing funding for Kiev - on top of the $76.8 billion that Washington has already sent since the war’s outbreak - would have proven onerous enough. While US support for Ukraine still receives bipartisan backing in the Senate, opposition from Republicans in the House of Representatives has, if anything, hardened. 

Yet it’s not even close to normal times.

After three weeks, the House of Representatives has (finally) elected a new speaker, Louisiana’s Mike Johnson, who has mostly opposed funding the war effort, receiving an "F" ("very poor") grade on the Republicans for Ukraine "report card", a website that ranks support for Ukraine. The speaker of the house is often considered the second most powerful role in US politics and can make or break the president’s agenda. 

The clash over the speaker’s gavel has left lasting hurdles in Biden’s quest to attain even a fraction of the military aid he wants. 

To ship additional tanks or long-range tactical missiles to Kiev (or even to keep the federal government working beyond November 17), a bill now has to be passed by the house (with a simple majority) and the Senate (with a filibuster-proof, three-fifths majority), then earn the president’s signature. 

Capitol Hill (or, more specifically, house Republicans) have been in the throes of a high-stakes power battle, with Ukraine’s defences hanging in the balance. In September, before he was abruptly ejected, former speaker Kevin McCarthy compromised with Democrats on a 45-day stopgap, "continuing resolution" that kept the federal government open, while pushing down the road decisions over future funding to Ukraine. 

What’s obvious is that any closed-door negotiations over Johnson’s speakership involved constant horsetrading over the issue. Yet what exactly those negotiations were is unclear. Before Johnson, the three (failed) candidates for the speakership had mixed positions on Ukraine.

House majority leader (the "number two man" under McCarthy) Steve Scalise separately voted three times for (and three time against) aiding Ukraine. Ohio Representative Jim Jordan consistently voted against aid to Kiev. The most recent candidate to drop out before Johnson’s selection, the party’s chief whip, Tom Emmer, had previously voted for financing Ukraine. 

For his part, Johnson did support the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act soon after Putin’s invasion in 2022, which offered short-term assistance for Ukraine’s military. However, Johnson had been much more defiant of late, voting against appropriations bills containing aid for Ukraine in both 2022 and 2023. 

Earlier this year, Johnson proclaimed on Twitter (now known as X) that "American taxpayers... deserve to know if the Ukrainian government is being entirely forthcoming and transparent about the use of this massive sum of taxpayer resources". 

Johnson’s personal stance on Ukraine aid may matter less compared to what he’s been willing to barter. To earn the support of moderates, it’s possible he was forced into a political straightjacket, requiring concessions to move his candidacy forward.

For example, when asked just moments after earning the speakership if he wanted more funding to Ukraine, he replied "We all do," but noted "we are going to have conditions on that".

That suggests a "hard pass" on Ukraine may not have been a litmus test for Johnson nabbing the speakership. But it may also signal that he’s only willing to go so far - and caveats could apply.

The small band of Republican renegades exercising outsized clout in the house are no fans of sending more military aid to Kiev. Still, the effort to pair aid to Ukraine with that for Israel may make it harder for Republicans to take such a firm line, given greater consensus for the fight against Hamas. 

When the "crazy eight" house Republicans united with Democrats to fire McCarthy, they all knew that it would make obtaining aid for Ukraine harder. The prolonged brawl over the speakership, and the ensuing bedlam, was predictable.

GOP hardliners wanted to "blow up the system," and halt the flow of dollars to Kiev. For them, paralysing the government achieved those twin goals, even if temporarily. Washington couldn’t funnel more dollars to Ukraine, or continue to bloats its deficit, when there was pandemonium.

Yet Democrats who enabled the chaos simply to make the Republican party look bad also showed their true colours. They seemed to prioritise Ukraine as a world-epic stuggle for democracy - except when it hampered their ability to score domestic political points.

Now that Republicans have coalesced behind a speaker, the question is whether Congress can return to the status quo of extreme (but not all-out) dysfunction. Either way, a long-term

One prediction: Biden’s hope that "petty, partisan, angry politics" will cease with Ukraine could fade faster than the expected shelflife of Johnson’s new speakership. 

This article was first published in  The Conversation  on 26 October 2023.
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