WASHINGTON – Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul defied leaders of both parties Thursday and single-handedly delayed until next week Senate approval of an additional $40 billion to help Ukraine and its allies withstand Russia's three-month old invasion.
With the Senate poised to debate and vote on the package of military and economic aid, Paul denied leaders the unanimous agreement they needed to proceed. The bipartisan measure, backed by President Joe Biden, underscores U.S. determination to reinforce its support for Ukraine's outnumbered forces.
The legislation has been approved overwhelmingly by the House and has strong bipartisan support in the Senate. Final passage is not in doubt.
Even so, Paul's objection was an audacious departure from an overwhelming sentiment in Congress that quickly helping Ukraine was urgent, both for that nation's prospects of withstanding Vladimir Putin's brutal attack and for discouraging the Russian president from escalating or widening the war.
It was also a brazen rebellion against his fellow Kentucky Republican, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell began Thursday's session by saying senators from “both sides” – meaning Republicans and Democrats – needed to “help us pass this urgent funding bill today,” gesturing emphatically as he said “today.”
Paul, a libertarian who often opposes U.S. intervention abroad, said he wanted language inserted into the bill, without a vote, that would have an inspector general scrutinize the new spending. He has a long history of demanding last-minute changes by holding up or threatening to delay bills on the brink of passage, including measures dealing with lynching, the defense budget and providing health care to the Sept. 11 attack first responders.
Democrats opposed his effort and, along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., offered to have a vote on Paul's language – which would have likely lost – but Paul turned that down. He argued that the added spending was a significant sum would deepen federal deficits and worsen inflation. Last year's budget deficit was almost $2.8 trillion.
“We cannot save Ukraine by dooming the U.S. economy,” Paul said.
“It's clear from the junior senator from Kentucky's remarks, he doesn't want to aid Ukraine,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., “All he will accomplish with his actions here today is to delay that aid, not to stop it.”
Underscoring their joint desire to approve the bill immediately, Schumer and McConnell stood nearly side-by-side as they tried pushing the legislation forward.
“They're only asking for the resources they need to defend themselves against this deranged invasion,” said McConnell. “And they need this help right now.”
The House voted 368-57 on Tuesday to approve the measure. All Democrats and most Republicans backed it, though every “no” vote came from the GOP.
The bipartisan backing for Ukraine has been partly driven by accounts of Russian atrocities against Ukrainian civilians that have been impossible to ignore. It also reflects strategic concerns about letting Russian President Vladimir Putin seize European territory unanswered as his assault on his neighbor to the west grinds into its 12th week.
“Helping Ukraine is not an instance of mere philanthropy,” McConnell said. “It bears directly on America's national security and vital interests that Russia's naked aggression not succeed and carries significant costs.”
Biden administration officials have said they expect the latest aid measure to suffice through September. But with Ukraine taking heavy military and civilian losses and no sign of when the fighting might end, Congress will ultimately face decisions about how much more aid to provide at a time of huge U.S. budget deficits and a risk of recession that could demand added spending at home.
The latest bill, when added to the $13.6 billion Congress approved in March, would push American aid to the region well above $50 billion.