WASHINGTON – A conservative nonprofit organization that supports continued U.S. aid to Ukraine drove a mobile billboard around Otsego on Monday with a target in mind: Rep. Tom Emmer, who represents the town in Congress and holds a leadership position in the Republican-controlled U.S. House.
“GOP: Stand up to Putin,” the billboard urged.
Emmer, R-6th District, has always supported U.S. military aid to Ukraine, earning him a “A” grade for an “excellent” voting record by Defending Democracy Together, an organization led by GOP strategist Sarah Longwell and conservative political commentator Bill Kristol.
Emmer is House majority whip, the No. 3 position in the House GOP leadership, which has been largely supportive of U.S. policy toward Ukraine. But that support has appeared to crack under the fierce opposition from dozens of House GOP members to President Biden’s latest request for $24 billion to help Ukraine continue to battle Russia.
The threat of an end to U.S. help has prompted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to meet with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., on Thursday to lobby for more aid. On Tuesday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-California, was dismissive of Zelensky’s strategy.
“Was Zelensky elected to the Congress? Is he our president?” McCarthy asked in response to a question at a press conference. “I don’t think so. I have questions for where’s the accountability on the money we’ve already spent? What is this the plan for victory?”
McCarthy, who received a “B-” in the Ukraine support report card, has also declined to put any money for Ukraine in a short-term spending bill called a continuing resolution that would keep the government running after Sept. 30.
After Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Emmer said the United State’s “response to these aggressions must be done in a swift and unwavering manner that holds Russia – and any other nation seeking to violate international law – to account.”
But Emmer’s office did not respond to several requests for comment on the report card or his position on continued Ukraine funding.
While Emmer received top grades for his comments and votes in support of Ukraine, Minnesota’s three other GOP members of Congress, Reps. Brad Finstad, R-1st District, Michelle Fischbach, R- 7th District, and Pete Stauber, R-8th District, were all given “F’s” for their record.
Fischbach and Stauber initially supported bills to help Zelensky with billions of dollars in U.S. aid after Ukraine was invaded by Russia – Finstad was not in office at the time. But all three subsequently voted for amendments to a defense appropriations bill sponsored by the most conservative U.S. House members, including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, and Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, that would cut Ukraine funding.
None of the three Minnesota Republican lawmakers responded to requests for comment.
The report card was issued by an organization founded by Defending Democracy Together called “Republicans for Ukraine” that plans to spend $1 million on television ads and other efforts to mobilize GOP support for the embattled nation, including deploying mobile billboards in the districts of all House GOP leaders.
“Now is a pivotal time for Americans, especially Republicans, to support Ukraine,” spokesman Gunner Ramer said. “For just 5% of our annual defense budget, America has helped Ukraine destroy half of Russia’s Army and liberate its territory and people. That’s a great return on investment for American national security.”
Republicans for Ukraine has its work cut out for it. Of the 222 GOP House members the group graded, nearly as many failed their report card as received the highest mark.
Meanwhile, McCarthy has resisted bringing up any vote that does not receive the support of the entire House GOP conference, under a threat by ultraconservative Freedom Caucus members to remove him from his speakership if he doesn’t. That condition is threatening to result in a shutdown of the federal government at the end of the month, because McCarthy is struggling to win support for a continuing resolution that would continue to fund the federal government for about a month or so.
A local organization that represents about 19,000 Ukrainian Americans and more recent refugees form the war-torn country who live in the state is also lobbying members of Congress to continue U.S. aid to Ukraine. The Minnesota Ukrainian American Advocacy Committee sent members of the Minnesota delegation letters last week urging them to vote for Bidens’s most recent request for Ukraine funding.
“The United States is not alone in supporting Ukraine. In fact, 19 countries have committed a greater percentage of their GDP to help Ukraine that the U.S. has,” the letter said. “Also, aid for Ukraine has some of the strictest oversight and accountability mechanisms in the history of U.S. aid, helping to make sure that aid isn’t wasted.”
Committee member Maria Doan said the lack of new funding would harm the Ukrainian war effort. But so would a shutdown because it threatens planned U.S. efforts to train the Ukrainian military on F-16 fighter jets and Abrams tanks.
“It’s really heartbreaking for us,” she said of the volatile situation in Congress.
Doan said many of the Ukrainians in the state live in the Twin Cities area, but others live in Rochester, Mankato, Duluth, and Ely.
The situation when it comes to Ukraine is much different among House Democrats, most of whom support continued U.S. military and humanitarian aid to Zelensky’s government.
“Nobody should have to endure what the people of Ukraine have been forced to endure – but as long as Putin continues his illegal invasion, I will support providing Ukraine with the funding, supplies and resources they need to fight,” Rep. Angie Craig, D-2nd District, said in an emailed statement. “It’s about more than Ukraine. It’s ensuring a strong NATO alliance and that authoritarian leaders understand that they must respect borders and that the U.S. will support our friends.”
Reps. Dean Phillips, D-3rd District, Betty McCollum, D-4th District, and Ilhan Omar, D-5th District, are also supportive of continued U.S. help in Ukraine.
However, McCollum and Omar have been critical of a Biden administration proposal to provide cluster munitions to that nation’s military. Because they kill indiscriminately and sometimes fail to explode, posing a danger for decades, cluster munitions are prohibited by more than 100 countries. Russia, Ukraine and the United States have not signed onto the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans production, stockpiling, use and transfer of the weapons.
On Tuesday, Biden spoke at the United Nations in New York, urging U.S. allies to continue to help Zelensky’s government.
“If we allow Ukraine to be carved up, is the independence of any nation secure?” Biden asked. “The answer is no. We must stand up to this naked aggression today to deter other would-be aggressors tomorrow.”