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Trump or Ukraine: It’s the momentous decision now before the U.S. House

The U.S. House of Representatives has a historic decision to make: continue military support for Ukraine, or follow Donald Trump? The whole world, not just Ukraine, has reason to watch this debate over a bill that places the U.S. at a historic crossroads — with the GOP caught between its traditional foreign policy and its nationalist leader.

Bill involving U.S. funding for Ukraine is also a litmus test of the role the U.S. plays in the world

A couple draped in Ukrainian flags overlooking the Washington Monument. Image shows them from behind, framed inside the marble columns of the Lincoln Memorial, with the Washington obelisk in the background.

Donald Trump or Ukraine: It's the momentous decision now before the United States House of Representatives, which is about to debate a bill with global implications.

Over the coming weeks, the Republican-led chamber will consider the specific issue of whether to continue donating weapons for another year to the besieged eastern European nation.

But what's about to unfold in that body will broach a broader question of worldwide interest: The view the U.S. has of its role in the world, and whether that includes defending an ally.

The issue has landed in the House after the Senate wrapped up its own months-long debate, passing a bill Tuesday that funds weapons transfers to several countries.

What this imminent struggle will reveal is whether enough of the pre-Trump Republican Party still exists to push the legislation through.

Biden implores Republicans to support bill

U.S. President Joe Biden cast the upcoming legislative tussle as a historic trial of American commitment to foreign friends.

"Stand for decency. Stand for democracy," Biden urged House Republicans. "I mean this sincerely: History is watching."

Ukraine is by far the largest recipient of military aid in the legislation; two-thirds of the $95 billion US package would go to Ukraine, with smaller sums for Israel, Taiwan and humanitarian relief in Gaza.

However, the bill faces determined opposition from the increasingly mighty Trump-led nationalist wing of the Republican Party.

Trump allies are tearing into Republicans backing the legislation and threatening them with primary challenges.

Those battle lines were evident in the Senate debate. Mitch McConnell, the exemplar of the party's old-guard leadership, decried what he called the dim, shortsighted view of colleagues who reject the U.S. playing a leadership role in the world.

"Idle work for idle minds," is how the Republican leader cast it. "And it has no place in the U.S. Senate."

Yet, when it came time to vote, McConnell was in the minority. A man who once held a mighty grip on Republicans was among just under half of those in the party who backed the bill.

WATCH | Trump's latest salvo at NATO:

Trump suggests he’d encourage Russia to attack countries not paying enough to NATO

2 days ago

Duration 2:45

Former U.S. president Donald Trump suggested that he would encourage Russia to attack any country that doesn’t pay enough into NATO. Critics say that’s not how NATO works and that the comments undermine its pledge of mutual defence.

Trump's NATO blast: the new reality

For evidence of which way the tide is turning in the Republican Party, look no further than Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina.

One of the most notorious national-security hawks in American politics, he's now undergoing a transformation, shocking old allies by opposing the bill.

The new reality of this political era was emphasized several days ago when the party's de-facto leader made remarks threatening not just Ukraine, but the NATO alliance itself.

Speaking of U.S. allies who under-fund their own defence, Trump said: "I would not protect you. In fact I would encourage [Russia] to do whatever they hell they want."

On Tuesday, a heated Biden referred to NATO as a sacred American commitment and bemoaned his predecessor's comments: "It's dumb, it's shameful, it's un-American."

Things won't get easier in the Republican-led House.

Picture of man in glasses

The possible paths in the House

The Republican leader of the chamber has sent a clear and immediate signal that he won't assist in this bill's adoption.

Speaker Mike Johnson said he will not allow a vote on the bill in its current form, which leaves one of two potential paths and neither is guaranteed to succeed.

The first path is a negotiated deal between the parties, perhaps including new U.S. border-security measures. A similar effort collapsed spectacularly in the Senate.

A second path involves a procedural longshot called a discharge position, a parliamentary gambit that has succeeded in forcing a vote only twice in the past three decades.

It allows members of both parties to gather signatures when a bill has been stuck at committee for 30 days; if the petition gets a House majority (218 members) it can force a vote.

Such an effort would face severe opposition. Lawmakers who sign their name would face blowback from both the left and right.

From the right, over Ukraine, with the inevitable rhetorical drubbing from Trump, his allies, and like-minded media. From the left, over munitions and missile-defence aid to Israel. In a troubling sign for the bill, progressive lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says she'll oppose it.

"If it actually gets to the floor of the House, it'll pass overwhelmingly … I'm confident it'll eventually get there," Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, told CBC News.

"[But] there are a lot of twists and turns that could take place."

He said the most critical difference this bill would make is furnishing Ukraine with long-range artillery. This, he said, would shift the battlefield outlook.

To date, the U.S. has supplied Ukraine with as much military aid as the rest of the world combined, primarily through an American program that sends over old weapons and funds the manufacturing of new ones that stay in the U.S.

But cash for that program expired at the end of last year, leaving Ukraine facing a desperate artillery shortage as it braces for an anticipated Russian offensive.

In a wooded area, a helmeted soldier in camouflage holds a howitzer

Ukraine: 'What's the end goal?'

Supporters of funding for Ukraine warn of a looming multi-layered catastrophe if Ukraine is overrun: human atrocities, more refugees, damaged grain exports, higher food prices and emboldened autocrats.

"It is absolutely existential," Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat and former CIA officer, said Tuesday of the need to renew funding.

She and her colleagues argued at a news conference that this funding will serve as a bridge to get Ukraine through 2024 as it builds its own domestic weapons production.

LISTEN | A lack of U.S. interest in funding Ukraine has Kyiv worried:

Day 69:07The ambivalence of US lawmakers to fund Ukraine sends a troubling message to Kyiv

The U.S. Congress seems poised to let its most significant block of funding for Ukraine's war against Russia run-out, after allowing it to become enmeshed in disagreements over policies on the country's southern border. Tim Mak, an independent journalist based in Kyiv, Ukraine, says that would have dire consequences for Ukraine and western democracies everywhere.

Some Republicans have tried depicting this bill as a sneaky effort to keep arming Ukraine well into a Trump presidency if he wins the election. However, one military analyst disputes that — he says the $60 billion for Ukraine will likely only last until about the end of this year at the recent rate of weapons use.

"It's extremely unlikely [this funding] would even get to next January," said Mark Cancian, an expert on military budgeting at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a retired Marine and Defence Department official.

He argued that deterring Russia remains in the U.S. national interest. If there's any lesson from the two world wars, he said, it's the danger of the U.S. thinking it can ignore a distant threat from a land-grabbing rival.

"We get sucked in, eventually. And, when that happens, then we get sucked in when things are really bad and the price is much higher," Cancian said.

"So I would say we could either support the Ukrainians in their fight, or we can get involved in the fight in a couple of years ourselves."

However, J.D. Vance, the newly elected senator from Ohio and a Trump-aligned Republican, draws the exact opposite lesson from history by looking at different wars: Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

In a floor speech in the Senate, Vance ridiculed the past bipartisan consensus that pushed the U.S. into long-term quagmires, comparing Ukraine to those wars.

He complained that it will further deplete already eroded U.S. ammunition stockpiles. And he called it strange that the heavily indebted United States is being asked to fork over $60 billion more, with no clarity on what its objective is in Ukraine.

"What is the end goal here?" he asked. "It is astonishing that not a single person from Joe Biden on down can actually articulate what another $61 billion can do."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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