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Congress wonders if Biden, McCarthy struck Ukraine funding deal

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., speaks with reporters as he departs after a series of failed votes on spending packages at the U.S. Capitol in Washington ahead of a looming government shutdown, Sept. 29, 2023.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

WASHINGTON — Congress and the rest of Washington buzzed Monday over the question of whether President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy cut a secret deal that could protect future aid for Ukraine as part of an agreement to avoid a government shutdown over the weekend.

The suspicion is that Biden agreed to sign a stop-gap federal government funding deal that did not include Ukraine aid he wanted to provide, in exchange for McCarthy agreeing to hold a standalone vote on that aid later.

“What was the secret side deal on Ukraine?” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., demanded during an angry speech Monday targeting his fellow Republican McCarthy on the House floor.

The answer could determine whether Gaetz follows through on his long-standing threat to force a vote on McCarthy’s speakership, which could come as early as this week. It could also tilt the outcome of that vote.

McCarthy on Monday denied that there was a secret plan for Ukraine funding.

But, McCarthy added, “in a continuing resolution, sometimes you make sure you can move money around freely during the 45 days.”

Much of official Washington was stunned Saturday when Democrats backed a 45-day stopgap government spending bill that did not contain emergency funding for Ukraine, after the White House said an additional $24 billion in aid was needed.

The bill came hours before a deadline that would have seen the shutdown of many government agencies and services if that continuing resolution was not passed by Congress and signed by the Democratic president.

On Sunday, Biden said he expected McCarthy to “keep his commitment to secure passage and support needed” to fund Ukraine’s defense.

“There’s an overwhelming number of Republicans and Democrats in both the House and the Senate who support Ukraine,” Biden said at the White House. “Let’s vote on it.”

At the White House on Monday, reporters pressed Biden’s press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on what the president meant when he said McCarthy had made a commitment on Ukraine.

Each time she was asked, Jean-Pierre said there was bipartisan support for aid to Ukraine, that McCarthy has said he supports such aid, and, “I’m not going to go beyond what the president said.”

“We want to see that McCarthy keeps his commitment to the people of Ukraine that he has said he wants to continue that funding to make sure that Ukraine gets the weapons that they need,” the press secretary said. “That’s what we want to see.”

A standalone vote on emergency Ukraine funding would likely pass the House, but only with the help of Democratic votes.

House Republicans are increasingly divided on the question of whether the United States should continue funding Kyiv’s defense against Russia.

Since the inception of Russia’s invasion in February 2022, the U.S. has provided more than $43 billion in security assistance for Ukraine.

State Department spokesman Matt Miller on Monday said, “We cannot under any circumstances allow American support for Ukraine to be interrupted. Our allies, our adversaries and the world will be watching.” 

“While we have the ability to continue to support Ukraine’s ability to defend itself in the immediate term, we have already exhausted much of the existing security assistance funding, it is imperative that Congress take action,” Miller added.

Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters in Kyiv on Monday, “We don’t feel that the U.S. support has been shattered, because the United States understands what is at stake in Ukraine.”

“The question is whether what happened is an incident or a system,” Kuleba said, referring to the lack of hoped-for aid in the funding resolution passed by Congress on Saturday.

“I think it was an incident.”

— Additional reporting by Amanda Macias and Emma Kinery

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