A split emerged on Tuesday between Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over a possible supplemental bill to boost Pentagon spending levels above what was agreed to in the debt ceiling fight last week.
McConnell on Tuesday insisted the $886 billion in funding for the Department of Defense as part of the debt ceiling deal is not enough. That put him at odds with McCarthy, who on Monday had spurned a bipartisan push by senators last week for a funding increase for Ukraine and other priorities.
“The government’s work to provide for the common defense remains unfinished,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “President Biden’s request for the defense budget is simply insufficient given the major challenges that our country faces.”
“Congress must commit ourselves to equipping the military with the capabilities it needs to control growing threats,” McConnell continued, namechecking China, Russia and Iran as countries the U.S. must protect against.
The remarks come only days after defense hawks cried foul at the debt deal over what they deemed lackluster Defense spending and a potential 1 percent rescission later in the year.
As part of an agreement to push the debt ceiling package through the Senate quickly and avoid a default, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and McConnell agreed to work on a defense supplemental spending bill in the coming months.
Senate Republicans who were part of that push last week maintained that additional money for the Pentagon will be needed in the coming months.
“I strongly believe that we’re going to need a supplemental for defense,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told The Hill when asked about McCarthy’s remarks. She added that it’s still “early” in the process and that she wasn’t sure of the context of the Speaker’s comments.
However, Republicans are now dealing with issues on their right flank. The Speaker and the House Freedom Caucus have found themselves at odds in the aftermath of the debt ceiling vote, with conservative members tanking a rule vote earlier on Tuesday — the first time that has happened in more than 20 years — in reaction to the deal.
McCarthy earlier this week indicated that any further funding for Ukraine in support of its war against Russia must come as part of the yearly appropriations process, not as part of a separate funding bill.
“The question to me is … Why would you do a supplemental? We just passed an agreement. You work through the [appropriations process]. They’re trying to go around the agreement,” McCarthy said on Tuesday. “If anyone thinks at the end of the day, ‘Ukraine needs money,’ you’re gonna have to show: What did we spend our money on? What is the plan for victory? And what do you need the money for? You don’t just go say ‘Oh, go vote for some supplemental.’”
He added that funding could be included by carving out “efficiencies” that are part of the Defense budget.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters that he does not expect that effort to take place immediately, but rather whenever requests come in from President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Other top GOP members said that they expect the Speaker to nevertheless discuss possible needs for Ukraine as they arise.
“I think there needs to be a conversation,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters, noting that the White House usually drives the bus on supplemental requests. “I understand his sensitivity to that. He just cut a deal and I thought did a good job negotiating under the circumstances.”
“We’re not unified on anything,” Cornyn said when asked if there’s unity among Senate Republicans on a supplemental effort. “There’s divergence, but I’d say the majority certainly support what we’re doing in Ukraine and the need for a strong defense.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) told reporters that lawmakers supportive of Ukraine will “have our work cut out for us” to continue to fund the effort, especially if a supplemental needed. However, he downplayed the divide between McCarthy and McConnell.
“I think that we’ll end up sorting it out. It may not be at the level many of us want, but there’s also a lot of work to be done,” Tillis said.
The back-and-forth comes on the heels of a particularly fruitful stretch between the two leaders after McConnell backed the California Republican at every turn in debt ceiling talks between the White House and House Republicans despite his history dealing with the president in past negotiations.
Democrats also backed up McConnell’s position if the White House requests more funding for Ukraine in the coming weeks or months. Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, told reporters that he would “do everything I can to support it on a bipartisan basis.”
However, he did note the division between the GOP leaders on the topic.
“If you heard the speech from Mitch McConnell on the floor this afternoon, he seems to be critical of Biden for not doing enough,” Durbin said. “So there’s conflict in the messages coming from the two Republican leaders.”
Emily Brooks and Brad Dress contributed.