Congress, Stop Holding American Disaster Relief Hostage to Ukraine Aid

Senate Republicans Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, both of Florida, have filed legislation to allow Congress to take separate votes on disaster relief for Americans and more U.S. aid to Ukraine. This is a timely and thoughtful response to the Biden administration’s attempt to combine the two issues in the same funding bill, which would force members of Congress to support sending more aid to Ukraine if they want disaster relief for their constituents in Hawaii and elsewhere.

The administration’s strategy amounts to nothing short of hostage-taking—and Americans are the hostages. Congress should reject it out of hand by supporting Scott and Rubio’s effort to disentangle disaster relief from Ukraine aid and consider them separately.

Doing so not only would help protect Americans. It also would allow lawmakers to debate further aid to Ukraine on its merits. Such debate is more important now than ever as U.S. public support for Ukraine aid is on the decline, a strong indication that Americans are uneasy with the Biden administration’s strategy (of lack thereof) for Ukraine.

The United States has an interest in preventing Russian leader Vladimir Putin from conquering Ukraine; large majorities in the House and Senate supported the Biden administration’s efforts to support Ukraine after Russia invaded last year.

But that support has weakened in the months since, in large part because Americans increasingly are skeptical of sending aid to Ukraine.

As it stands, the United States has appropriated more than $113 billion for Ukraine.

The White House’s latest request includes another $24 billion for Ukraine, as compared with $12 billion in domestic disaster relief and only $4 billion for U.S. border security.

Possibly in response to a growing perception that money keeps flowing to Ukraine while the White House neglects domestic affairs, a recent poll shows that 55 percent of Americans say they oppose authorizing more funding for the war in Ukraine at all.

Americans have every right to expect the Biden administration to address their concerns about the Ukraine war effort, but thus far it has failed to do so.

It is no secret, for instance, that Ukraine long has struggled with public corruption. In the past year alone, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense has been involved in a number of corruption scandals. This is one reason why Americans are concerned about a lack of accountability for U.S. aid to Ukraine.

Those concerns have only grown in response to reports of theft and misplacement of U.S. equipment bound for Ukraine, as well as accounting errors by the Defense Department. Bipartisan support exists in Congress to address these concerns by creating a special inspector general for Ukraine assistance. But thus far, the Biden administration has opposed creating the office.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine appears unlikely to end any time soon. Yet the administration has committed to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” This position raises questions about how the administration plans to achieve its goals for Ukraine without placing an undue burden on Americans or jeopardizing U.S. priorities elsewhere.

For this reason, the Heritage Foundation has demanded a plan from the Biden administration for handling the war in Ukraine. A total of 129 members of Congress voted for a similar plan earlier this year. Yet no such plan has come from the White House.

President Joe Biden’s reluctance to address Americans’ concerns is troubling enough. More troubling still is his decision to effectively block disaster relief for Americans until Congress approves more funding for Ukraine.

Zelensky with Schumer and McConnell
WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 21: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) speaks to reporters briefly following a meeting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (2nd L), Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) (2nd R) and a bipartisan group of senators in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on September 21, 2023 in Washington, DC. After attending the United Nations general assembly in New York earlier in the week, Zelensky is in Washington to meet with lawmakers and President Joe Biden about an additional $24 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine for the ongoing invasion by Russia.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This is simply wrong. The first responsibility of the U.S. government is to provide for Americans’ well-being—not hold Americans hostage on behalf of a foreign nation.

Fortunately, Congress can put an end to the Biden administration’s gambit, although it may be difficult in the Senate, where the Democratic majority likely would block consideration of the Scott-Rubio bill or vote against it if it comes up on the floor.

Indeed, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) already has committed to blocking the bill, saying that she believes “it’s important to include Ukrainian funding.”

But Senate Republicans should still object to such obstruction and strongly support any effort to pass the Scott-Rubio legislation. Even if they’re unable to pass it, doing so would send a strong signal to House Republicans—and Americans, more broadly—that the administration’s tactics will not be tolerated.

At the same time, House Republicans should reject consideration of any bill that combines disaster relief and Ukraine aid. Doing so is fully within the power of the Republican House speaker. And it would help deter the administration from similar hostage-taking in the future.

This, in turn, would help ensure that Congress is able to debate Ukraine aid on its merits—not just in this instance, but in the future—instead of allowing the administration to use clever parliamentary tactics to effectively bypass Congress.

Finally, some Republicans might consider the Biden administration’s tactics to be abominable but believe aid to Ukraine is so important that Congress should pass it alongside disaster relief for Americans, regardless of how Biden spends the money.

But Ukraine already has become one of the more contentious issues in U.S. politics, and the Biden administration’s tactics aren’t likely to improve the situation. If anything, they are likely to outrage Americans and make them even more skeptical of aid to Ukraine in the future.

With this in mind, even Republicans who strongly support increased aid to Ukraine should be wary of allowing the administration to hold Americans hostage in pursuit of that goal.

In the end, as with so many things in American politics, this debate comes to down what members of Congress are willing to fight for.

If congressional Republicans—and House leadership in particular—believe it is wrong to block disaster relief for Americans until Congress sends more aid to Ukraine, they have the power to stop it.

And if congressional Republicans believe Congress should debate Ukraine aid on its merits instead of fast-tracking it without oversight, they can make that happen.

They need only the will to do so.

Alexander Velez-Green is senior advisor to the vice president for national security and foreign policy at The Heritage Foundation. He previously served as national security advisor to U.S. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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