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Kevin McCarthy’s ugly new Ukraine threats should prod Democrats to act

By Greg Sargent

We learned this week that a Republican-controlled House could very well move to oppose continued U.S. military aid to Ukraine. In response, a few voices have arisen — including ones from inside the Biden administration — to insist that in the end a GOP House would of course do the right thing and keep that aid going.

But even if Biden aides are professing confidence about continuing aid to Ukraine in 2023, Democrats should seriously consider locking in longer-term aid to Ukraine in the lame duck session, if they lose the House and/or the Senate.

Some Democrats have begun openly calling for this. “I would be in favor of any legislative initiative that commits the United States and its allies to a long-term commitment,” Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia told me.

Connolly is right. Being overly sanguine about continuing aid to Ukraine doesn’t sufficiently factor in the dynamics and incentives that will likely shape a GOP House, including the development of an increasingly pro-Russia MAGA caucus that could only grow stronger after the midterms.

This all started when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy let the truth slip in an interview with Punchbowl News. “I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” McCarthy said.

That should be clear enough. But the White House does not seem to be taking McCarthy’s threats too seriously. Politico reports that aides to President Biden believe McCarthy will “blink,” and that he’ll keep the funding going, though perhaps less of it:

Their calculus is that a political blowback would singe the GOP if the money stopped, Ukraine suffered, and Russia emerged triumphant.

White House aides note that well-placed Republicans support continuing military aid to Ukraine. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) backs it, and so does Rep. Michael McCaul, who would chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a GOP House. McCaul told Bloomberg News that there’s still “bipartisan support” for Ukraine aid.

It’s true that many Republicans full-throatedly support the Ukrainian cause. A large majority of Republicans have so far voted for tens of billions of dollars in Ukraine aid. But 57 House Republicans voted against it. And a Democrat points out that a number of House GOP candidates — see here, here, and here — have opposed more funding, too.

It’s indisputable that the Republican Party is divided on this question. As The Post’s Eugene Scott notes, several GOP Senate candidates in the MAGA mold have signaled opposition. Now that McCarthy has signaled that aid may be in trouble, with influential MAGA Republicans like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene opposing it, the GOP divide could worsen if the House MAGA caucus grows.

There’s also the role of ultra-MAGA-loyalist Rep. Scott Perry on the Foreign Affairs Committee. The Pennsylvania Republican and hard-right Freedom Caucus chair has floated the idea of launching House GOP investigations of Biden’s handling of Ukraine. In principle that work could be conducted as good faith oversight, but it could also be abused in bad faith to obstruct badly needed military aid. Perry voted against aid and has raised strong notes of skepticism about it.

Rep. Connolly, who is also on that committee, notes that Perry has a history of using the amendment process to gum up its functioning, and suggests he may do the same on Ukraine.

“He has become a single-minded amendment factory,” Connolly told me, adding that Perry will likely try to “delay” Ukraine aid: “If past is prologue, that is his modus operandi.”

What’s more, it’s naive to think Republicans would fear political blowback if they blocked more aid and Ukraine suffered, as White House aides suggest. If you don’t think plenty of Republicans are capable of opposing aid to Ukraine and then blaming Biden as the guy who “lost Ukraine,” you haven’t been paying attention.

And if Republicans actually do gain the power to slow or stall aid, their political incentives could shift. In particular, certain segments of the right wing media might start clamoring more loudly for this, and there could be increasing rewards — attention, plaudits — for Republicans who adopt this position.

You can already see these arguments developing. Right wing media figures and MAGA Republicans skeptical of aiding Ukraine piously insist they sympathize with Ukraine’s plight, but merely want to avoid provoking Russia into nuclear war.

Everyone, of course, wants to avoid nuclear war. But that posture of skepticism toward aid doesn’t reckon with the genuine dilemma on the table: After all, not aiding Ukraine could mean Russia’s illegal territorial conquest and war crimes successfully accomplish their objectives. Skeptics of aid tend to avoid saying directly whether they’d be okay with such an outcome, but that could very well be the result of ending aid.

Yet if those bad-faith arguments against aid gain traction, the House GOP caucus might “flip on a dime” on Ukraine, Connolly says, though he allows that for now, many Republicans do want to help Ukraine defend itself.

“That is absolutely a source of concern,” Connolly said.

Democrats need to take seriously the idea that a kind of pro-Russia axis, or at least an axis loosely allied with what you might call a developing right wing authoritarian Internationale of autocrats, strongmen and illiberal democracies, is taking hold inside the GOP.

“With the normalization of what started as fringe ideas, they have started to seep into common discussion points," Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) told me, noting that it’s ominous that McCarthy is already “crumbling to his fringes."

All of which is why locking in longer-term funding should be on the table. This could signal that U.S. support is durable amid uncertainty about whether energy challenges could fracture Western commitments. As Connolly notes, this would give Ukraine and our allies "confidence that we’re not gonna pull the plug.”

Click here to read this story as it appeared in the Washington Post
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