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Ukraine’s fate is now tied to a tumultuous place: the U.S. Congress

Ukraine’s fate is now tied to a tumultuous place: the U.S. Congress. Vital American funding for its defence is now swept up in uncertainty, but there are still several ways it could continue. Here’s the outlook.

U.S. funding for Ukraine war is swept up in uncertainty, but there are still 4 ways it could continue

President Joe Biden meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, in Washington.

The fate of Ukraine's war effort is now attached to an increasingly unpredictable place: the United States Congress.

The U.S. is overwhelmingly the top donor to Ukraine's self-defence and there's new uncertainty about whether that funding can continue.

That's because the House of Representatives is in limbo as Republicans search for a new leader following their unprecedented ouster of a House Speaker.

Whether the next House Speaker is as pro-Ukraine as the ejected Kevin McCarthy is by no means certain, as Republican support softens.

There are still several paths to delivering new aid. They range from parliamentary procedural manoeuvring, to political risk-taking.

None of these options is guaranteed to succeed, and none will happen immediately, all of which spells a period of extended anxiety in Kyiv as current U.S. funding will dry up over the fall.

WATCH | In unprecedented move, U.S. House of Representatives ousts Speaker:

Kevin McCarthy ousted as Speaker of the House of Representatives

1 day ago

Duration 2:33

Featured VideoRepublican Kevin McCarthy has been ousted as the Speaker of the House of Representatives in an extraordinary showdown. Those who voted him out include Democrats and members of his own party.

Acknowledging these emerging jitters, U.S. President Joe Biden called world leaders earlier this week and also said he'll be delivering a speech on this topic.

"It does worry me," Biden said Wednesday of the suspension in funding.

He said he'll talk soon about potential short-term solutions. In the long run, he's appealing to the majority in Congress, which he says supports more Ukraine funding.

Biden's right — about three-quarters of U.S. lawmakers consistently vote for more Ukraine funds, and would undoubtedly back the president's request for $24 billion in additional funding.

But it's less clear that a vote will even happen. This may depend on the next Republican leader, and on the mood in the Republican Party.

Ukrainians react during the All-National minute of silence in commemoration of Ukrainian soldiers killed in the country's war against Russia on Independence square in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023.

The battlefield effects: Weeks or months

White House official John Kirby estimated current U.S. funding will last for about a couple of months and was more emphatic when asked whether Ukraine will be able to continue defending itself without American support.

"To be blunt … no," Kirby replied.

The U.S. has indeed supplied Ukraine with everything from medical bandages and goggles to tanks, missiles, drones, mine-clearing equipment, artillery and battlefield intelligence.

"The United States has unparalleled capabilities," 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 offers a bleak assessment on what happens to Ukraine if that spigot is turned off.

In a few weeks, he says, it would be felt on the front lines. Equipment shortages would accumulate and get progressively worse. Eventually, he said, Ukraine would face pressure to negotiate a quick ceasefire under unfavourable terms.

WATCH | Zelenskyy visits U.S. in September as he tries to shore up support:

Biden welcomes Zelenskyy in 2nd wartime visit

13 days ago

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Featured VideoPresident Joe Biden underlined U.S. support for Ukraine's fight against Russia as the country's president visited Washington for the second time since Russia invaded. But Volodymyr Zelenskyy does have some critics among Republicans, whom he tried to win over during his visit.

A retired U.S. Army colonel put it even more bluntly.

"It will guarantee defeat for Ukraine in this war and victory for Russia," said Gian Gentile, associate director of the Army Research Division in the Washington-area office of the U.S. government-funded RAND Corporation think-tank.

The Pentagon potentially still has several months worth of funding for Ukraine. But it's not so straightforward, as different programs exist and they're not funded equally.

In an email to CBC News, the U.S. military said it had zero funds left in a program that buys new weapons for Ukraine; $5.4 billion left to supply Ukraine with U.S. weapons; and insufficient funds, $1.6 billion, left for the U.S. to replace the weapons it sends Ukraine.

The situation in Congress

Ukrainians have ample reason to be watching next week when the House of Representatives meets to pick a new Speaker.

The Speaker wields huge power in deciding which bills come to the congressional floor for a vote, and which die on a shelf.

One aspiring Speaker is a vocal opponent of additional assistance for Ukraine, the populist partisan Jim Jordan of Ohio.

He's followed a trajectory similar to many in his party: in 2022, Jordan initially supported Ukraine funding, tweeting things like, "Pray for Ukraine. May God bless its brave citizens." And he praised Ukraine's president, but within months he'd become a critic and now gets the lowest possible score from a pro-Ukraine group that tracks congressional votes.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, speaks during the House Oversight Committee impeachment inquiry hearing into President Joe Biden, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Jordan said Wednesday he opposes more funding for Ukraine, noting that the U.S. has bigger priorities at home.

"The most pressing issue on Americans' mind is not Ukraine — it is the border situation, and it is crime on the streets," he said.

In the other corner, there's rival Speaker candidate Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who has consistently voted for Ukraine funding while serving on McCarthy's leadership team.

It's worth noting that the last Speaker was emphatically pro-Ukraine. In his resignation news conference, McCarthy delivered an impassioned five-minute monologue comparing Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler and made clear his goal of supporting Ukrainian victory.

WATCH | Eleventh-hour deal avoids U.S. government shutdown:

U.S. lawmakers dodge government shutdown with last-minute deal

3 days ago

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Featured VideoModerate U.S. Republicans and Democrats approved a spending deal just hours before a U.S. government shutdown deadline on Saturday. The bill, presented by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, has further infuriated hardline Republicans already seeking to push him from his post.

Yet even he'd been hesitant to bring up another vote.

Look no further than the events of this week to understand why. All it took was a small revolt by eight Republicans and McCarthy's speakership was over.

A Ukraine bill would trigger way more than eight naysayers, along with venom from some influential conservative commentators.

Nearly half of Republicans recently tried blocking future Ukraine aid, although most polls still show a clear majority backing U.S. efforts to arm Ukraine.

This creates a serious problem for Republican leaders, who have a five-seat majority in the House, and are in no position to risk triggering a revolt.

Just ask McCarthy.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks to reporters hours after he was ousted as Speaker of the House, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023, at the Capitol in Washington.

Four paths forward

That doesn't mean it's over for U.S. assistance. There are four ways the U.S. Congress can deliver additional funding.

One possibility is the next Speaker being propped up by Democrats. It's a longshot, but if no Republican can secure the necessary 218 votes for any candidate, a consensus centrist choice could emerge.

A second option is a Republican leader willing to risk his own career, introduce a Ukraine bill, and bet the party won't oust another Speaker so quickly.

A third involves a rare parliamentary manoeuvre known as a discharge petition. It allows ordinary members to bypass the Speaker and force a vote on a bill.

This almost never happens. Lawmakers have to put their names on a public list and risk angering their leaders. There's also a bit of an institutional taboo against it. In the last three decades, it's only succeeded twice at forcing a vote.

"The odds for passage are not good," said Greg Shaw, an expert on Congress and political scientist at Wesleyan University in Illinois.

It also takes a while. A bill is stuck at committee for over 30 days, then it can take up to another couple of weeks to hold the vote. Ukraine and its allies would presumably crave certainty sooner than that.

"This is not a speedy process," Shaw said.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., along with other Republican members of the House, speaks at a news conference after the House passed the debt ceiling bill at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, May 31, 2023. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Option four is a bipartisan compromise: A speaker like Jordan or Scalise could pair Ukraine aid with border-security measures to get Republicans onside.

Perhaps that's why Jordan, when asked about Ukraine aid Wednesday, specifically mentioned the border.

One thing is certain: Ukrainians have reason to be anxious about events in Washington. One Ukrainian parliamentarian this week predicted funding would come — eventually.

"The disaster has not happened yet," Oleksiy Goncharenko posted on his Telegram account.

"The U.S.A. is our key ally. Without the support of the U.S.A., we practically have no chance of withstanding."

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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