UNITED STATES NEWS

Ukrainian troops are rationing ammo. But House Republicans plan to take weeks to consider aid

Mar 1, 2024, 10:08 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ukrainian drones fly without ammunition. Russian artillery unleash deadly volleys from safe positions beyond the range of Kyiv’s troops. Shortages of ammo and supplies are resulting in lost ground to Moscow, U.S. congressional leaders warn, yet the Republican-controlled House has shown little hurry to resupply Ukraine with military aid.

Across Washington, officials are viewing the drop-off in ammunition shipments with increasing alarm. It’s now been over two months since the U.S. — which since World War II has fashioned itself as the “Arsenal of Democracy” — last sent military supplies to Ukraine.

But House Speaker Mike Johnson appears determined to chart his own course away from a $95 billion foreign aid package passed by the Senate — a decision that could stall the package for weeks to come after an already arduous months-long wait in Congress.

With U.S. military shipments cut off, Ukrainian troops withdrew from the eastern city of Avdiivka last month, where outnumbered defenders had withheld a Russian assault for four months. Delays in military support from the West are complicating the task for Kyiv’s military tacticians, forcing troops to ration ammunition and ultimately costing the lives of Ukrainian soldiers.

“If Ukraine gets the aid they will win. If they don’t get the aid they will lose — with dire consequences to the United States,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who visited Ukraine last week.

Defense officials are discussing options, which include possibly tapping existing stockpiles even before Congress approves funding to replenish them, according to Sen. Jack Reed, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And at a White House meeting this week, President Joe Biden, the two top Democrats in Congress and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell all took turns intensely urging Johnson to take up a Senate-passed package that would provide $60 billion worth of assistance for Kyiv.

So far, the Republican speaker has refused.

The Louisiana Republican — just four months into the powerful job as speaker, second in the line to the presidency — is under intense pressure from all sides. The leaders of 23 European parliaments have signed an open letter urging him to pass the aid. And within his own House ranks, senior Republicans are growing restive at the inaction, even as other far-right members have threatened to try to remove him from leadership if he advances the aid for Kyiv.

“The House is actively considering options on a path forward, but our first responsibility is to fund the government and our primary, overriding responsibility — and it has been for the last three years — has been to secure the border,” Johnson said at a news conference.

Johnson responded to the pressure on Ukraine by saying the House had only received the funding legislation in mid-February after the Senate took four months to negotiate, including enforcement policies at the U.S.-Mexico border. The deal on border security swiftly collapsed after Republicans, including Johnson, criticized the proposal as insufficient. Yet Johnson and other House Republicans are once again hoping to secure some policy wins on border security.

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Congress late last year, he told Johnson that the military aid would last into February. But as Congress entered March, Johnson so far has allowed House members to craft their own proposals and revealed little on his plans for the package.

“We’re beyond the time frame that this should have taken, this analysis and careful consideration by the House should have been completed before the end of the year or very shortly after the new year,” said Rep. French Hill, an Arkansas Republican.

Hill and several other senior Republicans are pressing Johnson to act by crafting a new national security package in the House. That bill, which is being drafted by Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul and key appropriators, is expected to come in less than the $95 billion Senate package but include many similar provisions — including money that Ukraine, Israel and Indo-Pacific allies could use to purchase U.S. military equipment, as well as some humanitarian assistance.

It may also include a version of the Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity for Ukrainians, or REPO Act, which would allow the U.S. to tap frozen Russian central bank assets to compensate Ukraine for damages from the invasion, Hill said. He said it would save taxpayer dollars in the long run and help gain Republican votes in the House.

“This is more a matter of finding out the way to move forward,” said seasoned Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the chairman of the Rules committee. “But a substantial majority of both houses of Congress wants to help Ukraine. You had 70 over there,” he said about the robust Senate support, “and the vote here will be well north of 300.”

Rep. Annie Kuster of New Hampshire, who leads a caucus of centrist Democrats called New Dems, said many in her party are ready to help Johnson pass a military aid package if he brings it to the floor. But she said the bill already passed by the Senate would have the broadest support.

“We’re at a critical moment right now, and I encourage Speaker Johnson to work with us,” Kuster said. “He has such a slim majority.”

Meanwhile, any decision by the Pentagon to send Ukraine weapons before Congress approves funding is fraught with risk. Since there is no money to replenish the equipment and weapons sent, the military would be depleting its stockpiles and potentially risking harm to unit readiness for war.

In addition, there are worries that action from the Pentagon could dissuade Congress from moving quickly on the funding bill.

Reed said it would make more sense for Congress to pass the supplemental package, because then the Pentagon “could immediately order the equipment they’re drawing down. We run the risk without that of drawing down the equipment and not being able to replace it or being confident of replacement.”

But he added, “There might be circumstances where the president would decide to ship equipment like ATACMS, even though it would be a difficult judgment.”

The U.S. has sent medium-range ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile Systems) as well as HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems). But there has been pressure for the U.S. to send longer-range ATACMS. The U.S. has resisted out of concerns Moscow would consider them escalatory, since they could reach deeper into Russia and Russian-held territory.

Ukrainian leaders, however, could use the longer-range missiles to disrupt Russian supply lines — a capability that is seen as essential as Russian President Vladimir Putin looks to surge more troops this spring.

Ukraine also has made it clear that its forces also need additional artillery, including 155 mm howitzer rounds, as well as air defense ammunition.

Ukrainian officials have expressed confidence they can withstand a Russian offensive for several more months, said Shelby Magid, deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, which advocates for American cooperation with Europe. Yet she added that the Pentagon’s consideration of using drawdown authority sent a somber message that officials view the conflict as having direct implications for U.S. national security.

Some are warning that if Congress fails to provide the aid, U.S. troops will next be called on to help defend NATO allies.

Schumer said that during his trip to Ukraine, “One leading American said to me if we don’t get the aid, Russian tanks could be at the Polish border by December.”

___

Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed.

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Ukrainian troops are rationing ammo. But House Republicans plan to take weeks to consider aid