Thumbnail Image: Volodymyr Zelensky and Nancy Pelosi during a Joint Meeting of Congress with flag of Ukraine signed by the defenders of Bakhmut by Office of U.S. House Speaker is licenced under Wikimedia Commons

On Feb. 13, U.S. Senators passed a $95.3 billion national security bill that would provide assistance to several U.S. allies, including Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. A 70-29 vote allowed the long-awaited measure to proceed to the House of Representatives, although its prospects in the GOP-controlled chamber remain unclear.

The new aid package could provide $60 billion to Ukraine, allowing the country to purchase U.S.-made munitions and air-defense systems and cover $8 billion of its government spending. The bill also includes $14.3 billion of military aid for Israel, $9.2 billion of humanitarian aid for civilians in Gaza, and $4.8 billion aimed to counter China in the Asia-Pacific region.

The foreign aid package has been stalled in Congress for months now since the original bill introduced by President Biden was turned down in Dec. 2023. The current bill was proposed a day after the Senate Republicans blocked the bipartisan border deal, which combined harsher migration restrictions with assistance to Ukraine and Israel. The deal gathered only 49 votes in the 51-49 Democratic-controlled Senate and failed to reach the 60 vote threshold it needed to proceed.

The new aid package passed the key procedural vote on Feb. 8 on a tally of 67 to 32 with 17 Republicans agreeing to start debate. After a series of procedural hurdles and an all-night session of debate and talking filibuster from GOP opponents, 48 Democrats and 22 Republicans voted in favor of the bill.

The future of this aid package, however, is uncertain. The majority of the GOP conference does not support the bill, and both former President Donald Trump and House Speaker Mike Johnson spoke out against it.

In a news conference after the Senate's final vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer stressed the importance of the legislation and called upon House representatives “to do the right thing.”

"If the hard right kills this bill, it would be an enormous gift to Vladimir Putin," Schumer said to The New York Times. “It would be a betrayal of our partners and allies, and an abandonment of our service members.”

How did border reform become part of the aid package debate?

The original package was proposed by President Biden in October and amounted to about $110.5 billion of aid. $61.4 billion would have gone toward supporting Ukraine, with half of those funds allocated to replenishing the Pentagon's own weapon stockpiles. $14 billion would have been allocated to the southern border, and the rest of funding was distributed similarly to the new bill.

By dividing the funds between U.S. allies and border security measures, the administration claimed it wanted to create a spending bill that is more likely to pass the GOP-controlled House. The Republican party, however, declared its intent to block the funding if the more restrictive border policies are not implemented.

“We understand that there’s concern about the safety, security and sovereignty of Ukraine,” Johnson told reporters after a meeting dedicated to the bipartisan compromise. “But the American people have those same concerns about our own domestic sovereignty and our safety and our security.”

The subsequent negotiations between the parties’ representatives were mostly led by the Senators Kyrsten Sinema (I., Ariz.), James Lankford (R., Okla.) and Chris Murphy (D., Conn.). Mitch McConnell and John Thune also worked with Democratic Senate leadership and the Biden administration to gather support for the deal and allow its passage through the Senate to the House.

After months of careful negotiations, the final bill was unveiled on Feb. 4 and amounted to $118 billion in funding, from which $20 billion would have gone to border control. Its migration section, called “the most restrictive migrant legislation in decades” by the Editorial Board for The Wall Street Journal, would have tightened the criteria for receiving asylum and sped up the process to consider asylum cases within six months.

In the most significant change to the current border policy, the bill would have mandated the border shut down to illegal crossings if migrant encounters reached 8,500 in a single day or hit a daily average of 5,000 in a week. The immigrants could have still used asylum appointments at the ports of entry, and in the case of border shutdown, the ports would have been required to process at least 1,400 asylum applications daily. The Department of National Security would have authority to shut down the border at 4,000 daily encounters, but the use of presidential parole would have been limited.

“The Senate’s bipartisan agreement is a monumental step towards strengthening America’s national security abroad and along our borders,” Schumer said in a statement after the bill was unveiled. “This is one of the most necessary and important pieces of legislation Congress has put forward in years to ensure America’s future prosperity and security.”

Why has the bill not passed yet, and what are the chances it will pass at all?

Hesitance to pass more aid for Ukraine might be explained by a variety of factors, from sympathy toward Russia’s authoritarian regime to growing isolationism within the Republican Party, championed by Trump. While the GOP traditionally supported U.S. interventions abroad, the party recently underwent a shift in its platform as exemplified by Trump’s anti-NATO remarks.

Trump stated several times that he would solve the war in 24 hours if elected, which in reality could mean the shutdown of all aid to Ukraine and the surrender of currently-occupied territories to Russia. On Feb. 10, he wrote on social media that the United States would be “stupid” to provide foreign assistance “without the hope of payback,” indicating his opposition to any aid package that is not structured as a loan. His “America First” ideology is reflected in his party’s wariness with the war.

As the Russia-Ukraine war enters its third year, its media coverage has also declined significantly compared to the first few months. With the issue becoming less salient for voters, the support for aid packages in Congress also dwindled.

“That's a political problem,” Chair of the Political Science Department Will Reno said. “Because those in the Republican Party, for example, that support continued assistance, [..] they would probably benefit from public pressure, because then they could rationalize to their colleagues and Congress, why they have to support assistance, and create pressure to come to a deal.”

Even before the bill was unveiled, its migration section was heavily criticized by GOP members as being too weak. Through his social media, Trump warned his party members against striking any deal “unless we get EVERYTHING needed to shut down the INVASION of Millions & Millions of people, many from parts unknown, into our once great, but soon to be great again, Country!”

Several politicians accused Republicans of exploiting the chaos at the border and the possibility of more foreign aid to weaken Biden’s reelection campaign. Although the bill was crafted by one of the Senate’s most conservative members in Lankford and endorsed by the Republican-leaning Border Patrol Union, GOP Senators seemed to give in to pressure from Trump, who made the southern border one of his main campaign issues.

Another wave of criticism for the bill came from House Republicans, led by Johnson, who claimed they felt excluded from the negotiations. After the Republican meeting on Jan. 24, Ted Cruz even went as far as to tell the reporters, “This bill represents Senate Republican leadership waging war on House Republican leadership.”

In the letter to GOP members on Feb. 2, Johnson signaled that the border deal would be dead on arrival to the House. In direct challenge to the bipartisan bill, he proposed the standalone $17.6 billion aid package for Israel. In November, the Senate had already blocked the House bill that aimed to provide $14.3 billion funding to Israel by cutting those funds from the IRS.

Despite Johnson’s vocal support for the new Israel aid passage, the bill went down 250-180 on Feb. 6. 166 Democrats and 14 Republicans voted against the legislation since it omitted assistance to Ukraine and humanitarian aid and failed to create a mechanism to pay for the billions in spending.

The new foreign aid package deal has also faced backlash from both House and Senate Republicans, many of whom oppose its lack of border security measures. Several hours before the final vote took place, Johnson called the bill “silent on the most pressing issue facing our country” and indicated his reluctance to put the package up for a vote in the House.

Five days before, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries released a statement, expressing his readiness “to use every available legislative tool” to pass the bill in the House. Potentially, it could mean filing a discharge petition, which would force a vote on the bill regardless of Johnson’s opposition. For the petition to work, at least 218 out of 435 representatives have to sign it, which would pose a significant challenge in the GOP-controlled chamber.

How would the aid shutdown affect Ukraine?

While the aid delay would not guarantee immediate Russian victory, it would severely weaken Ukraine’s position long-term. At the Jan. 17 meeting at the White House, officials Avril Haines and Jake Sullivan shared classified information with Congressional leaders about Ukraine’s dwindling military capabilities, particularly air defense systems and artillery ammunition.

According to Sulllivan and Haines, Ukrainian forces could continue fighting back for weeks, months at most, if the additional aid is not sent. Most immediately, the stalled aid would limit Ukraine’s ability to conduct long-range strikes into the Black sea, which were seen as one of the most effective uses of the West-supplied weapons.

“[Ukrainians] were running on [..] low battery for a while from us,” Reno said. “But I think it's pretty much at this juncture now, where the impact [of aid delay] is going to become more apparent. And part of that is that the decline or the potential shut off of U.S. aid occurs at the same time that Russia has increased its domestic capacity to produce ammunition, particularly for artillery, and came to an agreement to get access to North Korean supplies.”

Sullivan and Haines also pointed out that Russia’s battlefield decisions are based on Ukraine's new vulnerabilities. They brought an example of the Russian aerial attack on Dec. 29 — the largest one since the start of the full-scale invasion — which followed Congress’ failure to approve the aid package before the holidays.

Besides military assistance, aid packages like the one in question support Ukraine’s ability to provide government services. Funding from the U.S. and the EU was expected to cover about $30 billion of the $40 billion budget shortfall this year. With the U.S. aid stalled, Ukraine’s resources would be strained between defense spending and other expenses like pensions and salaries.

“The way Ukraine's government functions, its capacity to function, it's partly due to Western assistance, including U.S. assistance,” Reno said. “So if you cut that off, it means that Ukraine's government has to try real hard to keep providing the services while they're fighting a war.”

The anxiety surrounding the aid passage is also felt among Ukrainian students on campus.

“We're all really worried that the aid is not going to be passed,” Weinberg first-year Yuliia Tkachuk, who is from Ukraine, said. “My family is in Ukraine right now. As [are] a lot of families of other Northwestern students, and we are really worried about their safety. And we understand that [aid delay] is a huge reason for why they might be in more danger.”

What would change in U.S. international relations if the aid passage is not approved?

It is not just Ukraine whose future depends on the Congress negotiations. European countries have their own security at stake if the U.S. stopped assisting Ukraine.

Several European leaders spoke up in favor of the aid passage, including German chancellor Olaf Scholz who visited Washington last week. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk even invoked the Republican party’s history of foreign involvement by posting on X, "Dear Republican Senators of America. Ronald Reagan, who helped millions of us to win back our freedom and independence, must be turning in his grave today."

On Feb. 1, the EU agreed to $54 billion of loans and grants to financially support Ukraine. After the aid passage, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said to BBC, "I think it will be an encouragement for the United States also to do their fair share.”

The aid agreement is an example of Europe’s recent attempts to step up its support to Ukraine amidst the aid deadlock in Congress. As the Russian threat to European peace remains, many EU countries are increasing their defense spending, specifically trying to hit the 2% of GDP target, which is required by NATO.

European leaders also started to use starker terms to describe security on the continent. In January, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said that if Ukraine does not defeat Russia, the latter could attack NATO countries within five to eight years. His sentiments were echoed by European Commission vice president Vadis Dombrovskis who called attention to the posters saying “Russia’s borders are ending nowhere” and “Alaska is ours!” that were recently distributed in Russia.

Europe’s increased attention to defense could partially be a response to the upcoming U.S. election. Trump repeatedly threatened to pull out of NATO and criticized the insufficient military spending of other countries in the alliance. As the future of the U.S. in NATO is up in the air, the EU countries could be forced to rely on themselves in a potential conflict with Russia.

The impact of the aid delay on the U.S. position in the world was recognized by several Republicans as well. In a recent speech to New Hampshire voters, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley spoke in favor of deterrence policy against Russia.  

“There’s a reason the Taiwanese want the U.S. and the west to support Ukraine,” the former South Carolina governor said. “Because they know if Ukraine wins, China won’t invade Taiwan.”

According to Biden representatives at the Jan. 17 meeting, the U.S. failure to come through for Ukraine would be felt all around the world, particularly among U.S. allies in Asia. An inability to support other long-term allies could make Taiwan, Japan and South Korea rethink their alliances with the U.S..

“The problem that the U.S. faces is if the President says one thing, and the Congress says another thing, anybody who relies on the U.S. has to hedge their bets,” Reno said. “Not following through [on promises] damages U.S. credibility abroad. It's also unusual, because from the end of World War II really to quite close to the present, the U.S. may have [had] internal political debates and divisions, but usually its foreign policy was very solidly bipartisan. That's the big change with this Congress: that there are fundamental aspects of the U.S. role in the world that the Congress and President disagree [upon].”