On October 3rd, former US House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, was ousted from his position in an unprecedented vote. The audacious overturning was orchestrated by a group of hard-right Republicans, led by Rep. Matt Gaetz, and a group of Democrats within the US House of Representatives. 

Prior to this, Congress narrowly escaped a government shutdown, so the 216-210 vote for McCarthy’s removal has sent shockwaves through Capitol Hill. This has not only brought into sharp focus a significant drop in GOP backing for sustained aid to Ukraine but also underscores how opposition to assisting Kyiv has become a litmus test for the right, marking a pivotal moment in the party’s stance on crucial international matters.

Why did McCarthy lose his position?

Many onlookers of US politics would attribute McCarthy’s downfall to his agreement with Democrats on a 45-day stopgap funding bill on September 30 to prevent an aforementioned government shutdown. According to McCarthy, the bill ensured “government would be open for 45 days for the House and Senate to get their work done,” and included money for disaster relief, following “the horrendous fire in Hawaii, and the disasters in Florida, California, and Vermont.”

Yet, Gaetz viewed McCarthy’s readiness to collaborate with Democrats–a necessary approach in governing within a bipartisan system–as a breach of their agreement for him to assume the role of speaker. Gaetz leveled serious accusations against the former speaker, claiming he betrayed the GOP by striking undisclosed agreements with President Biden, and that these covert dealings were aimed at securing additional aid for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. However, the stopgap bill surprisingly bypassed any provisions for Ukrainian assistance. 

During his final press conference, McCarthy expressed his sentiments about his ouster, as well as the incentives of Gaetz and the seven other Republicans responsible for it: 

“You know it was personal, it had nothing to do with spending … I don’t regret standing up for choosing governing over grievance,” McCarthy said. 

The turmoil within the Republican Party is especially noteworthy given its historical commitment to a robust American military presence, essential for defending democracy worldwide. The situation may pose substantial challenges for the Biden administration in fulfilling its enduring promise to stand by Ukrainian fighters. 

Where does Ukraine fit into this?

A majority of members–totaling 117 Republicans–voted against a bill allocating $300 million for a program to train and equip Ukrainian fighters. Despite the bill passing, this substantial opposition within the GOP raises concerns about future developments in the House, where hard-line Republicans usually resist taking action without the support of a majority of their own members.

Nonetheless, Republican opposition to Ukraine aid is not surprising. Conservative Republicans have advocated for isolationist policies regarding Ukraine’s war effort for a while, claiming that distributing notable funds to Kyiv could embroil the US in a direct conflict with Russia, and divert resources from pressing domestic issues. This “America First” outlook particularly gained prominence under former President Donald Trump’s foreign policy approach, although until recently, most legislators refrained from fully endorsing it.

The division among Republicans on the issue was further on vivid display in the fight to replace McCarthy. A short 24 hours after Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana won the Republican speaker nomination through a 113-99 vote, he renounced his bid. This past Wednesday, the contestant, Rep. Jim Jordan, failed for a second time to win the speaker position, with all 22 Republicans voting against him. The Ohio congressman now faces an uphill battle to secure the 217 votes he needs to win the gravel.

There have been other instances this year indicating that aid to Ukraine could face challenges. In June, McCarthy expressed his opposition to bringing an emergency spending package for Ukraine. Then, in July, the House deliberated on multiple amendments to prevent Congress from allocating military assistance funds for Ukraine within the framework of the defence authorization bill.

These attempts failed but exposed a notable increase in Ukraine skepticism within the GOP, marked by a rise in dissenting votes compared to the previous year. Following the summer recess, additional lawmakers returned to session and aligned with critics, voting against funding for Ukraine. Politics and public pressure had seemingly tipped the scales.

What happens next?

A recent CNN poll revealed that the majority of Americans oppose ongoing assistance for Ukraine’s war efforts, although there are notable partisan and ideological differences. Among Republicans, 71 percent believe Congress should not approve new funding, and 59 percent feel that the US has provided enough assistance to Ukraine. Democrats hold contrary views, with 62 percent supporting additional funding and 61 percent advocating for increased US involvement.

Nonetheless, Republicans have demonstrated challenges in effectively managing their majority in the House, which has real ramifications for the unfolding of funding issues in Ukraine. Key Republican agendas are stalled, and there is no sufficient ability to govern around current international issues–at a time when it is desperately needed.

Prioritizing real empathy for foreign lives would mark a significant departure from traditional US foreign policy. Addressing the harm of an “America First” approach seems essential. In conclusion, it is evident that most Conservatives lean towards conditional internationalism, supporting US global leadership only when it coincides with their national interests, rather than adopting an outright isolationist stance.

Edited by Donovan Gaudet

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Photo by the U.S. Department of Agriculture