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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Republicans block aid to Ukraine, jeopardizing its fight against Russia

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) speaks with reporters at the Capitol, in Washington on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress appealed for Republicans to allow the Ukraine emergency spending bill to advance on Wednesday, but the GOP dug in, demanding strict immigration provisions be added. (Al Drago/The New York Times)

By Karoun Demirjian

Republicans earlier this week blocked an emergency spending bill to fund the war in Ukraine, demanding strict new border restrictions in exchange and severely jeopardizing President Joe Biden’s push to replenish the war chests of U.S. allies before the end of the year.

The failed vote highlighted waning support in the United States for continuing to fund Ukraine’s war effort at a perilous time in the conflict, with Kyiv’s counteroffensive failing to meet its objectives and Russia’s forces on the offensive. While the bill faltered over an unrelated immigration policy dispute, the resistance it has met in Congress reflects a dwindling appetite among Republicans for backing Ukraine, as polls show that Americans are losing interest in providing financial assistance.

In the Senate, the vote to move forward on the bill was 49-51, short of the 60-vote threshold needed to advance.

Republicans held ranks against the $111 billion bill, which would provide about $50 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, more for economic and humanitarian aid, and an additional $14 billion toward arming Israel in its war against Hamas. They voted no despite a series of last-ditch appeals from Democrats and an appeal by Biden, who said he was prepared to offer “significant compromises” on the border and scolded them for abandoning Ukraine in its hour of need.

“Make no mistake: Today’s vote’s going to be long remembered, and history is going to judge harshly those who turned their backs on freedom’s cause,” Biden said Wednesday at the White House, just hours before the vote. He said Republicans were “willing to literally kneecap Ukraine on the battlefield and damage our national security in the process.”

The demise of the legislation in the Senate meant that Ukraine was exceedingly unlikely to be able to secure the additional U.S. aid before the end of the year — and possibly beyond. White House and Ukrainian officials have been sounding alarms in recent days, telling lawmakers that without an influx of weapons, Kyiv will run out of resources to defend against Russia’s invading army by the end of the year.

In an interview Wednesday, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said that Ukraine’s “ability to advance and their ability to defend will be substantially constrained” if Congress does not approve additional funding soon.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia has “been quite public and vocal about his notion that if military aid from the United States ceases, it will mean that Russia will defeat Ukraine,” Sullivan added.

Pentagon officials have cast some doubt on claims by the White House that Ukraine is about to run out of American money. They have said that the administration will be able to continue assisting Ukraine militarily through the winter, by parceling out the remaining $4.8 billion of authority to send Kyiv weapons from U.S. stockpiles.

And the dire warnings have done nothing to wear down Republican opposition in the Senate, where lawmakers spent the hours before Wednesday’s vote trading blame over the collapse of the bid to help Ukraine.

Republicans, even those who have been staunch advocates for arming Ukraine, blamed Democrats for refusing to bow to their demands for major immigration policy changes as the price of securing more assistance for Kyiv.

“Apparently some of our colleagues would rather let Russia trample a sovereign nation in Europe than do what it takes to enforce America’s own sovereign borders,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, said on the Senate floor. “They’re convinced open borders are worth jeopardizing security around the world.”

Democrats rejected that charge, pointing to more than $20 billion in the spending bill devoted to border security measures like hiring patrol and asylum officers and beefing up fentanyl screenings. They accused Republican lawmakers of manufacturing a false crisis by leveraging Ukraine’s fate to promote a restrictive border agenda that would never pass the Democratic-led Senate.

“You can’t say ‘I’m for Ukraine, but only if I get this wholly unrelated policy enacted,’” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. “You can’t be for stopping Putin from taking over a country by force and then vote against providing Ukraine the resources to do just that.”

Democrats voted unanimously in favor of advancing the measure, but Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who normally votes with them, joined Republicans in opposition. Sanders had argued in a letter to his colleagues that it would be “absolutely irresponsible” to provide Israel with billions of dollars in unconditional military assistance, given the rising civilian death toll in the Gaza Strip.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, changed his vote at the end to allow him to bring up the bill again in the future. Afterward, he said Democrats would continue to work with Republicans to find a solution and were ready to consider any new proposals the GOP had to offer.

“I hope they come up with something serious, instead of the extreme policies they’ve presented thus far,” Schumer said, adding that if they “do not get serious very soon about a national security package, Vladimir Putin is going to walk right through Ukraine and right through Europe.”

But the path ahead was unclear. While some lawmakers are eyeing upcoming government funding deadlines in January and February as future opportunities to strike a deal, others fear that waiting months could endanger Ukraine’s war effort.

“The clock is ticking,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chair of the Appropriations Committee, said on the Senate floor. “Aid for our allies in Ukraine has run dry and the whole world is now watching to see if the U.S. is now capable of standing by all its allies in times of need.”

Schumer made a last-ditch effort this week to keep the spending bill alive by offering Republicans a chance to try to add a border security amendment to the measure — provided they could secure 60 votes for it.

This “is the moment for Republicans to put up or shut up,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told reporters Wednesday, citing Schumer’s offer. “If we cannot come to a vote that sustains our allies and partners in Ukraine, we will have failed this moment in history.”

But Republicans did not take Schumer up on the offer. Instead, immediately after the vote, a group of Republicans took the floor to insist that the Senate abandon the effort to pass the sweeping national security package and focus on speeding aid to Israel.

“Let’s deal with the aid to Israel and do it separately from Ukraine,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said on the floor, arguing that voters “don’t want this to come attached with billions of dollars for other programs.”

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