By Lauren Fox, CNN
(CNN) — Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky went to Capitol Hill Thursday for his second visit, as fresh attacks by Russia overnight underscore the urgency facing his country as he asks for more US aid.
Only this time, the political landscape has shifted.
A year ago, Zelensky faced a much different reception in Congress. Democrats controlled the House and public support for funding the war effort in Ukraine was higher. As he stood to ask for more money and weapons before a joint meeting of Congress Zelensky was met with a packed House, members adorned in yellow and blue standing in support with Ukraine. Now, the Ukrainian president will return to Congress to a new speaker – facing a rebellion on his right – who has yet to promise future aid to Ukraine and will have to balance his own political future against the future Zelensky is hoping for his country.
“Was Zelensky elected to Congress? Is he our president? 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?” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy asked Tuesday.
New Russian attacks on Ukraine overnight killed at least two people in Kherson and wounded others in Kyiv and Kharkiv.
This week alone, McCarthy’s right flank has openly taunted members for backing Ukraine. Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida posted a picture of McCarthy in a Ukraine pin and with a yellow and blue pocket square, writing, “How does this make you feel?”
GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia posted a scene of Lord Farquaad calling his troops to battle from the animated film “Shrek,” tweeting, “Washington warlords speaking to the American people about Ukraine.”
President Joe Biden welcomed Zelensky to the White House on Thursday afternoon after the Ukrainian president also toured the Pentagon. Biden is seeking to hear a “battlefield perspective” from Zelensky as a second autumn of war approaches, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby told reporters.
Biden is expected to talk to Zelensky about battlefield needs, Kirby said, but it comes amid CNN reporting that ATACMS, the long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems, may not be part of a new weapons package, something Zelensky suggested to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer would be a disappointment. ATACMS are “not off the table,” Kirby said.
Zelensky arrives amid shutdown fight
Zelensky’s visit came as House Republicans are engaged in a bitter fight over government funding on the domestic front and as the prospects for more money for Ukraine – while very much alive in the Senate – are far less clear in the House even as the Biden administration as sent over a request for $24 billion in support.
“The first thing I will tell you is there is no money in the House right now for Ukraine,” Rep. Byron Donalds, a conservative member of the House Freedom Caucus from Florida, told CNN. “It’s not a good time for him to be here, quite frankly. That’s just the reality.”
Texas Rep. Chip Roy, another conservative, told CNN, “When was the last time Zelensky came here? Right before money. You think that is a coincidence? I don’t. That is why this Ukraine game needs to stop.”
Zelensky met Thursday with leaders in the US House of Representatives including McCarthy, but the speaker has said that no one-on-one meeting is planned nor will Zelensky have a chance to meet with the GOP conference where he could speak directly to the members opposed to funding his war effort.
A source told CNN that McCarthy denied Zelensky a joint session of Congress, which would have allowed him to give a speech and address everyone, a point first reported by Punchbowl.
McCarthy told reporters: “What I was asked for was a joint session. We don’t have time for a joint session.”
“So, I did exactly what I’ve done with the prime minister of Italy, the prime minister of the UK, I always bring when leaders come in, I bring a bipartisan group of leadership together,” he added.
McCarthy also denied official photographers access to the room where House leaders met Zelensky, the source added. But, a source shared photos from the room.
“I do think the more people who could hear from him directly, the more impact that it would have,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, told CNN.
Kirby said there is a “critical need” for Congress to grant the White House’s $24 billion supplemental funding request for Ukraine for its counteroffensive capabilities, saying that the aid “will have a significant impact on Ukraine’s fight.”
In contrast, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are holding a joint meeting with their members in the Senate.
Despite a slip in public support, there is still strong bipartisan backing for Ukraine funding on Capitol Hill, but it will be up to McCarthy to decide if legislation will even be put on the floor. The speaker has said he doesn’t want funding attached to a short-term spending bill and he’s also said it should be a standalone issue. But time is of the essence, with aides close to the matter telling CNN the expectation is that current US funding accounts for Ukraine could be depleted as soon as by the end of the year.
“This becomes an issue that time and time again, minute to minute, every question is: Is Speaker McCarthy going to do the responsible thing of putting the bill on the floor that we know will pass with broad bipartisan support?” Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia said. “If he lives in this constant fear that one member on his far right is going to take the action of motion to vacate the chair, therefore removing him from the speakership, then we are making day-to-day decisions or not making day-to-day decisions because one guy wants to keep his job. “
Shifting public support makes Ukraine funding risky
Inside McCarthy’s conference, the question of helping Ukraine is being framed by isolationists as a choice between helping Americans or helping Ukraine.
“I think every single person in this Congress, Democrat, Republican or in between is appalled, shocked and disagrees with what Russia and Vladimir Putin has done and is doing. That having been said, our borders are wide open. Our people cannot afford their electric bills, their gas bills and their food bills and before we send blank checks to some other country, we need to take care of our own people,” said Rep. Scott Perry, a conservative Republican from Pennsylvania.
A CNN poll in August found now a majority of Americans are opposed to authorizing more funding for Ukraine, and among Republicans, the number opposed soars to 71%. It’s a reality reflected in how Republican members – even those who don’t rule out more funding – talk about US support for Ukraine.
“Do you know who is winning the war in Ukraine right now? I don’t think the average member of Congress understands what is going on in Ukraine,” said Rep. Mike Garcia, a Republican from California. “I don’t think the executive branch knows what is going on in Ukraine right now. Look, we’ve invested $100 billion of American taxpayer dollars in Ukraine, we owe it to the American taxpayers to get an accountability of that money, the accountability of the weapons, to get a current status of what’s going on in Ukraine … and what is needed to win and how we are going to be involved in it before we invest.”
Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican from Louisiana, blamed the administration for a slide in support even as he argued it was still essential.
“The fiscally responsible thing to do here is to stop this in Ukraine. This crosses over into NATO countries and you trigger article five, you aren’t going to be talking bout tens of billions of dollars, you are going to be talking about trillions of dollars and you are going to be talking about American service men and women on the front lines. That is not an option,” Graves said. “This administration has both accountability and transparency issues they’ve got to address before they deserve another penny.”
One of the most difficult balances Zelensky will face on Capitol Hill on Thursday is acknowledging why he needs the US aid, why it hasn’t been enough so far and how long he thinks he will actually be relying on the support as public fatigue over the war effort looms.
There is still a strong coalition of GOP support for Ukraine funding on Capitol Hill, such as McConnell, but Republicans have at times been critical of how the president has engaged in the war and how he has sold the US aid. Those GOP lawmakers argue Biden could do more to both sell the importance of the war effort to the public and to ensure members of Congress are kept in the loop on where and what impact the funding they are appropriating is having.
“The consequences of pulling the plug on Ukraine are enormous,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “It will lead to more war, not less. It will destroy a world order that has existed that has benefited the world. So I could not disagree more with my colleagues who say Ukraine doesn’t matter to us. It matters a lot.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.
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CNN’s Annie Grayer, Betsy Klein, Morgan Rimmer and Haley Talbot contributed to this report.