“NEVER LET a good crisis go to waste” is a Machiavellian maxim even if it is sound political advice. But when Washington is paralysed by divided government, the suggestion becomes something closer to a necessity: hardly anything gets done unless there is a crisis. Compromises are enacted only when some forcing mechanism—a government shutdown, a default on the federal debt, a natural disaster, a war—threatens to snap shut.
Tapping that sense of urgency and imminent disaster is how President Joe Biden hopes to get his request for $106bn to fund his administration’s aims in Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan despite the objections of tight-fisted America First Republicans in Congress. “We can’t let petty, partisan, angry politics get in the way of our responsibilities as a great nation,” Mr Biden said in a speech to Americans from the Oval Office on October 19th. “Just as in world war two, today, patriotic American workers are building the arsenal of democracy and serving the cause of freedom,” he said in one of the finer addresses of his presidency.
After the rhetoric comes the details. The spending package unveiled on October 20th proposes a trade to the isolationist wing of the Republican Party, who have been busy squabbling amongst themselves while the world burns. The White House is seeking $61.4bn to fund the war effort in Ukraine, which Donald Trump and his allied faction of Republicans in Congress ardently oppose. At the current burn rate of American funds, that amount of military and economic aid would be sufficient to support Ukraine from now until September 2024. In exchange, the White House is offering other spending that might be tempting to the holdouts: $14.3bn to the Israelis to help their war effort against Hamas in Gaza by replenishing stores of missile interceptors used by the Iron Dome and Iron Beam systems; $13.6bn to secure America’s southern border with Mexico and process the influx of asylum-seekers; and $2bn in foreign military financing “in the Indo-Pacific… to counter malign influence and deter acts of aggression” (presumably meaning support for Taiwan).
It is a well-constructed proposal. Were it to go for a straightforward vote, it would clear both the Democratic-controlled Senate and the ostensibly Republican-controlled House of Representatives by comfortable margins. If, however, the whole offer was prised into parts and voted on separately—as some Republicans hope to do—much less would survive.
Already, the America Firsters are loudly objecting. “I’m voting NO for money to defend foreign countries’ borders and if Joe wants to do something about our border then put a moratorium on immigration and deport ALL the illegals he let in!!” Marjorie Taylor Greene, a congresswoman from Georgia, wrote on X (formerly Twitter). They will offer three sorts of principled objections: that America cannot afford the spending, that spending in one theatre hampers efforts in others and that Ukraine is too corrupt to be trusted with spending of such magnitude.
The first charge, of overspending, will not be helped by a Treasury Department report, published on October 20th, finding that the federal budget deficit ballooned to $1.7trn in 2023. On the second charge, that the commitments cannot be met simultaneously, analysts point out that the three countries require different sets of arms. “Ukraine is mostly a ground fight so you need a lot of army equipment, but that’s not true for Taiwan, which is mostly air-and-naval combat,” says Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think-tank. There are some areas of overlap, such as counter-drone capabilities (useful for both Israel and Ukraine) as well as 155mm artillery shells.
As to the third charge, over possible corruption in Ukraine given its chequered history, some argue that the country has changed for the better. Josh Rudolph of the German Marshall Fund, another Washington think-tank, points out that not only have American inspectors-general closely monitored the aid provided, but also Ukraine has recently taken anti-corruption steps required for the country to join the European Union, such as requiring banks to scrutinise the finances of public officials for life. “My discussions with the Ukrainians are that it is considered unpatriotic these days to be corrupt,” says Jim Risch, a Republican senator from Idaho and the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (The unprincipled argument that victory for Ukraine is a victory for Mr Biden and therefore ought to be opposed will go unuttered, even if it carries considerable force among some Republicans.)
The merits of the matter may count for less than finding a resolution to the bitter civil war going on among House Republicans. On October 3rd a group of them, mostly of the America First persuasion, staged a bloodless coup and managed to remove Kevin McCarthy from his post as speaker of the House—the first time in American history that a sitting speaker has been ousted. Eighteen days later, and after several failed attempts to find a speaker who can command the support of the chamber’s majority, the chair remains vacant. The painful rejection on October 20th of Jim Jordan, a conservative firebrand who seemed the latest leading candidate to succeed Mr McCarthy, means that the current race is wide open: at least seven other Republicans are expressing interest in the worst job in Washington. The internecine squabbling looks like it could easily continue past its third week. Yet whoever manages to emerge out of the morass will matter greatly to the fate of Mr Biden’s request.
An isolationist who refuses to bring the proposal to the floor would probably be fatal to the proposal specifically and the possibility of further American aid to Ukraine generally. If the next speaker is more in the internationalist school of the party, he or she would still have a difficult task. Last month, a majority of House Republicans voted against a $300m spending bill to train Ukrainian soldiers. Bucking “a majority of the majority” can have consequences, as Mr McCarthy recently learned. In the Senate, where the Republicans are much less Trumpy, ultimate passage is highly likely, but the path will be slow. The Senate Appropriations Committee plans to hold hearings on Mr Biden’s proposal on October 31st.
Back in the House, meanwhile, the clock is once again ticking. The new speaker would need to resolve the divide among fellow Republicans over aid for allies before another semi-cataclysmic deadline—a government shutdown slated to begin on November 17th, in the absence of a budget deal—starts to occupy all of their time.■