Analysis: U.S. Republicans aim at Ukraine aid but unlikely to block it

A man walks past a shop damaged by an explosion, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Mykolaiv, Ukraine October 20, 2022. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo

WASHINGTON, Oct 21 (Reuters) - U.S. Republicans will have the power to block aid to Ukraine if they win back control of Congress, but they are more likely to slow or pare back the flow of defense and economic assistance than stop it, analysts said.

They might also use support for the Ukrainian war effort as leverage to force Democrats to back Republican priorities such as clamping down on immigration across the southern border with Mexico.

Democrats have been raising the possibility Republicans would curb assistance to Kyiv for months, given polls showing the party likely to end the Democrats' narrow control of the House of Representatives, if not the Senate, in the Nov. 8 midterm elections. Europeans bearing the brunt of the war's impact have also voiced concern.

President Joe Biden said on Thursday during a visit to Pennsylvania - a state with close congressional races - that he was worried about the Republican stance on aid to Ukraine.

There has been more Republican opposition in the House, where the caucus is more closely allied than in the Senate with former President Donald Trump and his "America First" policies. All 57 House votes against a bill providing more than $40 billion for Ukraine in May came from Republicans.

"You've got big pockets of the Republican party that have very kind of isolationist views," said Scott Anderson, a governance expert at the Brookings Institution.

However, Anderson and other analysts said there remains widespread bipartisan support for Ukraine eight months after Russia's invasion and that is unlikely to change soon, especially if Ukrainian forces continue a recent series of battlefield advances.

Anderson said some Republicans have viewed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's administration as corrupt since Trump's first impeachment trial.

House Democrats voted to impeach Trump in 2019 on charges he held up military aid for Kyiv to put pressure on Zelenskiy to investigate one of Biden's sons. The issue could loom large again for Trump's closest House allies, especially if he becomes the Republican presidential nominee in 2024.

"They're a minority element (but) that doesn't mean they won't wield potentially outsized influence in the Republican caucus," Anderson said.

Trump's vice president, Mike Pence, chided Republicans who have questioned supporting Ukraine, condemning what he termed "apologists" for Russian President Vladimir Putin and warning against "unprincipled populism" during a speech on Wednesday at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Conservative U.S. television personalities who wield a major influence over the Republican base have also inveighed against assistance approved for Kyiv, which totals about $66 billion so far including military, economic and humanitarian support.

"It is certainly a question that looms large over Capitol Hill at the moment," said Brett Bruen, who was director of global engagement in President Barack Obama's White House.

NO 'BLANK CHECK'

Concern about a Republican-led shift in policy on Kyiv was amplified this week when Representative Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican and likely next Speaker, said there would be no "blank check" for Ukraine if Republicans take over.

"I think people are going to be sitting in a recession and they're not going to write a blank check to Ukraine," McCarthy told Punchbowl News. "And then there's the things [the Biden administration] is not doing domestically. Not doing the border and people begin to weigh that."

In an appearance on Bloomberg Television, Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said some in his party are concerned about the cost of the Ukraine effort but not the goal, and he pledged "more oversight and accountability" if Republicans win the majority.

Biden administration officials have said they will support Ukraine's fight against Russia for as long as necessary.

Mark Cancian, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the total U.S. price tag for the Ukraine war is relatively small, given the Pentagon's $800 billion annual budget and the importance of supporting democracy and stability in Europe.

"Many strategists - and I would put myself among them - would say this is a reasonable amount of money and it's cost-effective," he said, noting the price would be much higher if U.S. troops were doing the fighting.

Several defense industry executives said they viewed the Republican comments on Ukraine aid as political rhetoric ahead of the midterms, not a threat.

Shares of companies including Lockheed Martin (LMT.N), General Dynamics Corp. (GD.N), L3Harris Technologies (LHX.N), Raytheon Technologies (RTX.N) and Northrop Grumman (NOC.N) have outperformed major stock market indexes so far this year.

Polls have Americans backing the aid. A Reuters/Ipsos opinion survey this month showed 73% of Americans felt the United States should continue to support Kyiv. There was more support among Biden's fellow Democrats - 81% - than Republicans - 66%.

The possibility of less U.S. military assistance has prompted jitters in Ukraine itself and elsewhere in Europe.

"It's the war of the free world, and rules-based world against the aggressor and this is exactly how we have to take it," Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur told reporters this week after meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

"When anyone, doesn't matter whether it's Republican or Democrat, says that we don't care about the rules-based world, then we can say that we stop helping Ukraine," Pevkur said.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Mike Stone; Editing by Mary Milliken and Daniel Wallis

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