President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine arrived on Capitol Hill on Wednesday ready to tout bipartisan support among lawmakers who have helped fund his country’s efforts to fend off Russia’s invasion.
And his message was well received, eliciting multiple standing ovations from both sides of the aisle as he addressed Congress. But despite the largely warm reception, several Republican lawmakers, including those set to assume top leadership positions, weren’t yet ready to commit to keeping the funding going in the next session.
“Obviously, there’s concern that the money’s going to the places that it’s intended. Having any taxpayer dollars that go anywhere, whether it’s domestically or abroad, deserves scrutiny,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) told POLITICO as he left the Capitol on Wednesday.
Asked whether the House would continue to support Ukraine next year, Scalise said: “We expressed an interest in making sure the money is going to be scrutinized. That’s something that we still will keep pushing for.”
The reception Zelenskyy received from congressional Republicans on Wednesday was largely positive. Broadly, across the House GOP conference, Republicans say they support both him and his army, as well as the Ukrainian people, in the battle against Russia. But many of those same members also say they plan to exercise oversight powers to scrutinize tens of billions that the U.S. has spent.
“I think the focus of the speech was brilliantly crafted to focus on freedom, which is something that, obviously, in the United States and Europe we hold dear, and the threat to liberty everywhere if you don’t take on a rogue regime,” said Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.). “It was very important that Zelenskyy recognizes that a lot of people are concerned about accountability. He made that point. There is transparency and accountability.”
During his whirlwind visit to Washington, Zelenskyy thanked President Joe Biden and members of Congress for all of the aid already sent to Ukraine as the country continues to defend itself against Russia’s bloody assault. In addition to more than $20 billion in security assistance, the U.S. has increased the amount and variety of weapons being sent to Ukraine — providing the Patriot system as part of a $1.85 billion package announced Wednesday as Russia launches ongoing airstrikes against the country’s energy infrastructure.
But looming over it all is the changing of power in the House of Representatives. Republicans there have been more skeptical than their counterparts in the Senate about funding Ukraine’s defenses.
Still, some left the House floor proudly declaring the importance of standing with a country fighting for its independence.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa,), who was among the lawmakers who ushered Zelenskyy down the aisles of the House, said the speech “gave a lot of people chills,” and compared it to the battles of the Continental Army in 1776.
Asked whether the wartime president changed minds with his emotional appeal, Fitzpatrick said: “He didn’t lose any, that’s for sure. And I can’t imagine he did anything but help his cause.”
House Republicans like Rep. Pat Fallon of Texas, who spoke positively of the speech but said it probably didn’t change minds, suggested that more Republicans would likely back Ukraine funding if the money was not packed into a larger spending package. And he noted that it is normal to have concerns about funding going to Ukraine in general, citing the country’s efforts to cut down on corruption.
“He did mention that we’re interconnected,” Fallon said. “Of course we are. The world is much smaller place than it was 30 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago. So we need to support them, but we need to do it in a way which is transparent, which makes sure that the resources go to the places that they need to go to.”
During his speech, Zelenskyy made several historical references to not only praise the U.S.-Ukraine alliance but also as a call to action for future funds. The upcoming omnibus spending bill that is set to be passed in the subsequent days or hours includes an additional $45 billion in funding for Ukraine. Prior to the Ukrainian president’s remarks, a few Republicans had already made public their opposition to the spending bill and further aid to Ukraine.
“Just like the brave American soldiers, which held their lines and fought back Hitler’s forces during the Christmas of 1944, brave Ukrainian soldiers are doing the same to Putin’s forces this Christmas,” Zelenskyy said. He also made the point that this war wasn’t just about Ukraine’s freedom but had implications for all free independent nations.
The most conservative members of the party didn’t withhold their skepticism about supporting additional funding.
“We should be focused on trying to contain the war, not expand the war. And this kind of sends the message we’re kind of OK with expanding the war. And I think we should be sending a different message,” Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), a Freedom Caucus member, said before Zelenskyy’s address.
As for his support of more Ukraine funding, “no chance,” he said. “I’d be for voting for an inspector general to find what they did with all the money that we already sent them.“
Shortly after the conclusion of Zelenskyy’s speech, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tweeted out a statement saying that “President Zelenskyy should be commended for putting his country first, but American politicians who indulge his requests are unwilling to do the same for ours.”
“Hemorrhaging billions in taxpayer dollars for Ukraine while our country is in crisis is the definition of America last. He did not change my stance on suspending aid for Ukraine and investigating fraud in transfers already made.”
Put more bluntly from Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a Freedom Caucus member: “I hope they keep fighting Putin, but they’re playing with House money.”
Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.