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Zelenskiy faces hard sell to win over U.S. House Republicans

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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy meets with U.S. President Joe Biden (not pictured) in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 21, 2022. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will face a critical audience when he addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Wednesday: House Republicans who could hold up billions of dollars in war aid starting next month.

President Joe Biden’s administration has sent almost $50 billion in foreign assistance to Ukraine since Russia began its invasion of its neighbor in February, including humanitarian, financial and military support. Congress, currently controlled by Biden’s Democrats, is expected to approve $44.9 billion more this week in a bill funding the federal government.

Zelenskiy, during a news conference with Biden at the White House on Wednesday, thanked Congress for the funding it had authorized so far and said he believed lawmakers would approve the next tranche.

“I believe that despite any changes in the composition of Congress, bicameral and bipartisan support will be maintained,” Zelenskiy said.

Nonetheless, the funding stream could slow starting on Jan. 3, when Republicans take a narrow majority in the House of Representatives. Some hard-line members of the caucus have called for an end to the aid that has helped Ukraine fight Russian forces, instead calling for an audit to trace how the money previously allocated has been spent.

All 57 House votes against a bill providing more than $40 billion for Ukraine in May came from Republicans.

“No more blank checks to Ukraine,” Republican Representative Andy Biggs wrote on Twitter hours before Zelenskiy’s visit to Washington. Biggs, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, has emerged as the main challenger to House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy in the House speakership election, slated for Jan. 3.

Fellow hardline House Republican Paul Gosar voiced a similar view on Twitter, as did conservative Representative Andrew Clyde, who criticized the timing of Zelenskiy’s visit.

“It’s entirely inappropriate for President Zelenskiy to make his personal pleas before Congress during the middle of the omnibus process, as he stands to greatly benefit to the tune of $45 billion from the massive spending spree,” Clyde told Reuters, referring to the year-end spending bill currently working its way through Congress.

“The United States cannot continue pouring American taxpayer dollars into Ukraine without a full audit of the billions of dollars in aid already sent overseas.”

The early weeks of 2023 could feature a leadership battle in the House, during which time legislating would likely grind to a halt. And even when the Republican-led House agrees on its leader, deep divisions between it, Biden and the Democratic-led Senate, could make it hard for lawmakers to agree on new initiatives.

While they are unlikely to stop aid altogether, Republicans could slow or pare back the assistance, or use it as leverage to win concessions from Democrats on Republican priorities like clamping down on immigration across the southern border with Mexico.

McCarthy said in October that Ukraine would no longer receive a “blank check” from the United States.

Funding for Ukraine puts historic priorities of the Republican party at odds: a strong defense and opposition to Russia versus a desire to rein in government spending. Adding to the complexity is the allegiance of many in the party to former President Donald Trump’s “America First” policies.

Some of his allies in Congress have viewed Ukraine’s government as corrupt since Trump’s first impeachment trial.

House Democrats voted to impeach Trump in 2019 on charges he held up military aid for Ukraine to put pressure on Zelenskiy to investigate one of Biden’s sons. The issue could loom large again as Trump seeks the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

Many House Republicans insist that they do support Ukraine. Representative Michael McCaul, in line to be the next chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a November interview with Reuters that the party wanted more “oversight and accountability” and but also that it wanted to help Ukraine and “avoid global conflict.”

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer acknowledged the concern in a Senate speech on Wednesday.

“I hope all House Republicans will attend the Zelenskiy address this evening. And when they do, they should listen to President Zelenskiy describe the horror his people have endured at the hands of (Russian President) Vladimir Putin,” Schumer said. “Now is not the time, not the time to take our foot off the gas when it comes to helping Ukraine.”