Speaker Kevin McCarthy publicly gave a cold shoulder to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during his visit to Washington on Thursday, denying the wartime leader’s request to address Congress — but that’s not the whole story.
McCarthy’s allies said he’s committed to arming Ukraine, despite growing skepticism within his caucus. And Zelensky said the speaker delivered a similar message during their private meeting Thursday.
Zelensky’s visit highlighted the balancing act McCarthy faces on Ukraine, especially during a broader spending fight that has exposed the deep divides within his narrow majority.
Bill Monahan, senior director for policy at Foreign Policy for America, said McCarthy is walking a “thin line” between supporting Ukraine and appeasing a growing share of House Republicans disillusioned with the war.
“He wants to be supportive of Ukraine, but he also has to [address] this faction that is kind of disrupting U.S. policy,” said Monahan. “I think he’s trying to keep his eye on what really matters, which is the Ukraine supplemental. He’s trying to hold together the bipartisan support for that.”
But Monahan argued that if McCarthy continues to push the Ukraine issue aside, it could lend more power to skeptical House Republicans.
“This remains a very vocal minority, but it may be getting larger,” he said. “McCarthy is going to have to step up and help make the case for this aid and its wider implications for national security.”
While Zelensky addressed the majority of the Senate during his Thursday visit to Capitol Hill, he only met with a bipartisan group of senior leaders in the House.
McCarthy denied a chance for Zelensky to address Congress jointly because they “didn’t have time,” which effectively blocked the Ukrainian leader from even trying to convince critics in the House to approve more aid.
Still, McCarthy appears to have had a positive meeting with Zelensky. The pair posed for pictures, and Zelensky himself said McCarthy showed support for future Ukraine aid.
“I started my day in the American Capitol with Congress, with very frank, detailed conversations,” Zelensky said in a video message posted on X. “I felt trust.”
In turn, McCarthy told reporters on Thursday he had a good discussion with Zelensky over his concerns about accountability of U.S. weapons and battlefield developments.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said McCarthy asked questions to help convince his colleagues that the Ukraine war was winnable, according to the New York Times.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the same House panel, said the Zelensky meeting went well and that despite the skeptics in the House, he expects the majority will support another Ukraine package.
But McCaul said supporters have to do a better job of arguing why it’s important to support Ukraine.
“We have to explain why it’s a national security issue and whatever happens in Ukraine directly impacts Taiwan,” McCaul told reporters. “This is a great power struggle with Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, against the West.”
That might be an uphill battle. More than two dozen GOP lawmakers sent a letter to President Biden ahead of Zelensky’s visit, vowing to oppose further Ukraine aid.
For the moment, with the House unable to agree on government spending bills, Ukraine aid is on the backburner. And McCarthy appears unwilling to make Ukraine a priority or publicly show more enthusiasm on the issue.
After the Zelensky meeting, McCarthy demurred when asked about including Ukraine funding in a continuing resolution, stressing there were other priorities to immediately fund, like the border.
“I’m more than willing to look at that,” he told reporters of Ukraine aid, “but one thing I know is if the president’s only focused on that while you got 10,000 people coming across the border, and he wants to ignore that? I think there are priorities.”
Jordan Cohen, defense and foreign policy analyst for the conservative Cato Institute, said McCarthy has shown he is supportive of Ukraine but only so far as it doesn’t threaten his speakership.
If McCarthy had allowed Zelensky to address Congress, he would have broadcast “a very clear statement” that he supports Ukraine, potentially angering conservative lawmakers in the House Freedom Caucus who oppose more aid.
“McCarthy has bigger things he wants to accomplish as speaker that don’t have to do with Ukraine,” Cohen said. “He doesn’t want to just shut down Zelensky and pretend like he doesn’t exist because again, at its core, I think McCarthy probably would want to get that aid.
“Beyond that, McCarthy doesn’t want to lose the speakership and to not lose the speakership means to keep the Freedom Caucus behind him,” he added.
Even smaller amounts of Ukraine aid is already becoming a major problem in the House. McCarthy on Friday said he would remove the $300 million for Ukraine in a defense appropriations bill and will instead hold a separate vote on the funding.
That move may have been designed to appease critics who voted against the defense appropriations bill on Thursday. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) was among the lawmakers who opposed the legislation because it contained Ukraine aid.
McCarthy’s position is increasingly contrasting with the Senate, where the vast majority of lawmakers are wholly supportive of continuing to back Ukraine.
To underscore the dire need of supporting Ukraine, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) shared a quote from Zelensky in his remarks after the meeting: “If we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war.”
And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has also emphatically backed supporting Ukraine, a position he emphasized after the Zelensky meeting, saying Ukraine aid was not charity but an “an investment in our own direct interests” and national security.
Cohen, from the Cato Institute, said concerned House Republicans have legitimate questions about Ukraine aid, including how more funds will help toward the goal of accomplishing the Biden administration’s end-game in Ukraine, as well as greater transparency on weapons transfers.
However, Cohen explained there is an opportunity for McCarthy to get critics on board if there are clear answers to those questions.
“Long term, that may be how McCarthy gets [skeptical] House Republicans to not necessarily support Ukraine aid, but to not threaten his speakership over it,” Cohen said.
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