WASHINGTON — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is headed back to Capitol Hill. This time he could be leaving empty-handed.
Congress is consumed with a spending fight that is as much about the war in Ukraine as it is slashing federal expenditures. And unlike last year, a visit from Zelenskyy may not move the needle.
Conservatives in the House of Representatives are pushing for Ukraine assistance be left out of a bill that would keep the government open through the end of the year. They are demanding stronger reporting on how the money is spent −and could end up voting to withhold aid altogether.
U.S. says shutdown would snarl Ukraine aid
Lawmakers rallied to pass $45 billion in aid for Ukraine last December after Zelenskyy made an unexpected visit to Washington to press for the money. But the House of Representatives was controlled by Democrats at the time, and the current, GOP-run Congress is in chaos.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is struggling to unite his unruly caucus around a broader government funding bill. Without an agreement, the United States' spending authority will expire on Sept. 30 and most of the federal government will shut down.
U.S. officials say a shutdown would snarl assistance to Ukraine that has already been approved, which could hurt Zelenskyy's ability to drive Russia out of his country.
Furloughs of federal employees prompted by a government shutdown could prevent the Pentagon from delivering the weapons and ammunition or providing education and training needed by Ukrainian forces, according to Christopher Sherwood, a Pentagon spokesperson.
Ukrainian forces depend on regular shipments of artillery shells, bullets and mine-clearing equipment for their counteroffensive against the Russian army. They also require training on advanced weapon systems like Patriot missile systems used to protect against Russian missiles and drones. Training Ukrainian F-16 pilots could also be affected, Sherwood said.
Funding for Ukraine on the line
Congress has approved $113 billion for Ukraine since the start of the war in February 2022. That amount includes humanitarian assistance and money to support Ukraine's government.
The Biden administration is seeking another $20.6 billion in aid to Ukraine, plus another $3.3 billion for other, related international needs, for a total of $24 billion in additional money.
"We asked for that money because we believe that we need that money to help Ukraine for the first quarter of the fiscal year," National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said Wednesday. "It would support the same kinds of systems and capabilities that we've been providing Ukraine for the last 18 months."
There are two main sources of Pentagon support for Ukraine: one, labeled Presidential Drawdown Authority, relies on existing stockpiles of materiel. Under that authority, President Joe Biden directed the Pentagon to ship tens of billions worth of military hardware; including howitzer cannons and rifles, long-range rocket-artillery systems and the shells they shoot. The Pentagon can ship weapons to the battlefield in a matter of days.
The Biden administration has also been sending drones and mine-clearing equipment. "And because we have no expectation that this counter offensive is going to end anytime soon, certainly, there's a valid need − a critical need − for those capabilities, in the coming months, certainly as we get to fall and into the winter," Kirby said.
There is about $5 billion left to tap under that authority, according to the Pentagon. On Sept. 7, Biden authorized a $600 million shipment that included ammunition for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System known as HIMARS.
What Zelenskyy wants from Washington
If the government is on the verge of a shutdown or Congress passes legislation that funds the government at its current levels until the end of the calendar year, the administration can draw on the existing pot of money.
But at some point, the funds will run out.
Zelenskyy warned of a "final war" with Russia at the United Nations earlier in the week and aims to secure more money for Ukraine and military equipment during his Washington visit. He will meet with military leaders, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, at the Pentagon after he speaks with lawmakers. Later in the day, he will visit Biden at the White House.
The Ukrainian leader has been pushing Biden for months to provide Ukraine with long-range missiles known as ATACMS. Biden discussed the topic with Zelenskyy in July at a NATO Summit. The U.S. president has balked at sending weapons that can reach inside of Russia. However, the administration says a formal decision on ATACMS has not been made.
"I hope we'll get it in autumn. For us it's very important not to do the pause in this counteroffensive, and I need it very much," Zelenskyy told CNN in an interview this month.
Beyond the drawdown authority, the Pentagon uses Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, a program the Pentagon uses to buy weapons from contractors, to help Ukraine. The M1 Abrams tanks is one of the most prominent examples from this category. The Pentagon contracted to have 31 of the massive, fast, lethal tanks delivered to Ukraine. They should reach the battlefield within weeks, Austin said Tuesday.
Since Russia’s invasion in 2022, the Biden administration has sent more than $44 billion in military aid to Ukraine.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Zelenskyy takes a shot at convincing Republicans to aid Ukraine