The government shutdown battle isn't over as Kevin McCarthy walks tightrope on Ukraine aid

WASHINGTON — Facing a challenge to his leadership from conservative Republicans, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Sunday warned President Joe Biden that more needs to be done to secure the southern border for Republicans to back “some big package” for Ukraine.

“I support being able to make sure Ukraine has the weapons that they need. But I firmly support the border first,” the California Republican said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” just hours after Congress reached a compromise to temporarily avoid a catastrophic government shutdown. “So we’ve got to find a way that we can do this together.”

But Biden remained focused on the war-torn nation on Sunday, saying McCarthy needs to keep his commitment to helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia’s invasion.

“Let’s vote on it,” Biden said in hastily announced public remarks, aimed in part at reassuring Ukraine and America’s allies that the funding will be there, after lawmakers approved a stopgap spending measure without additional aid for Ukraine. “Stop playing games. Get this done.”

Ukraine is trying to drive Russia out of its country in a slow-going counter offensive launched this summer. Biden said there’s still time – but “not much time” – for the U.S. to provide critical assistance.

That goal might be easier if McCarthy wasn't dealing with an uprising from his right flank.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., announced Sunday he will attempt to eject McCarthy from his post this week. The conservative hardliner accused McCarthy of “making a secret deal on Ukraine” as he was “baiting” Republicans to vote for the temporary spending measure known as a continuing resolution.

“Kevin McCarthy, at one point or another, has lied to all of us,” Gaetz said on CNN's "State of the Union.”

McCarthy, during a Fox News appearance on Sunday, accused Gaetz of grandstanding.

“I want to secure the border,” McCarthy said. “He wants to secure interviews.”

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks to the press on Capitol Hill on Sept. 30, 2023.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks to the press on Capitol Hill on Sept. 30, 2023.

There’s a growing divide among Republicans – both in Congress and among presidential hopefuls – about whether the U.S. should continue to support Ukraine. Nearly half of House Republicans voted to strip $300 million in aid from a defense spending bill last week.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., has long said the U.S. needs to get its priorities straight.

“We’re not stopping the invasion at the southern border but we’re gonna make sure we’re gonna stop the invasion in Ukraine,” the firebrand conservative sarcastically said in a 30-minute speech on the Capitol steps. “This is America last.”

As McCarthy struggled last week to get a bill through Congress to prevent a government shutdown, he demanded that Biden meet with him to discuss the border. But without a unified caucus, he lacked leverage. Biden lashed out at the speaker, saying he abandoned the deal they struck earlier this year to raise the debt ceiling.

Unable to pass a GOP short-term funding bill that included border security provisions, McCarthy ultimately had to accept Democratic support to get a temporary funding measure through the House to avert a government shutdown.

Democrats, however, had to accept that the bill did not include funding for Ukraine, which caused a last-minute headache as lawmakers raced to reach a compromise.

“What is most concerning about yesterday is that McCarthy folded on all his demands except one: no funding for Ukraine, despite majorities in both chambers supporting it,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Ct., said on social media Sunday. “Maybe Ukraine can go a few weeks without new funding, but not the rest of the year. A crisis is coming.”

President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023
President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Saturday he’s confident the Senate will pass more assistance later this year.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has been a vocal supporter of funding for Ukraine, said the “key to Ukraine funding is to deal with a broken border.”

“Sen. McConnell has been great in Ukraine, but he picked a formula to lose votes for Ukraine,” Graham said Sunday on “Face the Nation.” “To expect people like me and others to vote for Ukraine aid without border security is unreasonable.”

And Sen. Tom Carper, the Delaware Democrat and longtime friend of Biden’s, said it’s not just up to Congress to find a path forward.

“It’s also,” Carper said in a statement, “up to the Biden administration to find other ways to avoid interruption of the aid to the Ukrainian people.”

How much the White House has to accede to GOP's border demands depends on how secure McCarthy is in his leadership position, said Todd Belt, director of the political management program at George Washington University.

“As long as McCarthy remains speaker, they will probably have to,” Belt said. “McCarthy obviously is trying to still placate the hardliners in his party.”

But Shalanda Young, Biden’s budget director, said she’s confident there’s a “willing coalition” in Congress to pass Ukraine assistance.

Pressed on ABC’s “This Week" how McCarthy can both keep his commitment to the White House on Ukraine and his promise to House Republicans that he won’t bring up a bill they oppose, Young acknowledged, “It’s a tough job.”

Contributing: Ken Tran

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kevin McCarthy ties border security to Ukraine funding Joe Biden wants