The Grand Old Party is divided over what role America should play in foreign wars, especially in Ukraine. But of late, Utah Sen. Mike Lee has seen the consensus among his Republican colleagues in Congress shift his way.
“A lot of people are moving toward the position where I’ve been for some time now, which is that we should have caution in doing this,” Lee told the Deseret News in an interview on Monday.
In the past several months, the number of House Republicans who opposed legislation providing aid for Ukraine grew from 70 members in July to 93 in September. This skepticism toward further Ukraine aid — fueled in part by worries over corruption, the $113 billion already sent to the country and the prospect of sparking a global war — appears on its way to become the party’s position with newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson rejecting a Biden administration spending proposal this week that would have tied Israel aid to funding for Ukraine, Taiwan and the U.S. border.
Lee came out against Biden’s proposal immediately after it became public last week, joining a group of Republican senators in introducing a stand-alone bill giving Israel billions in aid while excluding Ukraine funding. On Thursday, House Republicans successfully followed suit, passing their own version with bipartisan support.
GOP representatives are increasingly against additional military support for Ukraine, Lee said, because lawmakers in the House are up for reelection every two years and Ukraine aid is losing popularity among Republican voters. In the case of Ukraine, Lee also sees an ideological shift among some in his party away from the interventionism of past decades toward a more restrained approach.
“I have been concerned for some time about the risks associated with getting involved in funding a proxy war,” Lee said. “It’s not to say that there’s never an appropriate place to do that, but you’ve got to be especially careful when you do it that you know where it’s headed and … how you might get sucked into a broader war.”
Lee has voted against additional aid for Ukraine since spring of 2022, citing a lack of oversight. However, Lee “categorically” rejects the label of isolationist, preferring, instead, “constitutional realist.”
This view holds that the U.S. government should not engage in serious military operations unless Congress passes an official declaration of war and maintains this should never be done unless there is a clearly defined path to victory and a plan for what a post-victory world will look like, according to Lee.
“We have an obligation under the Constitution, to the American people to do it the right way,” Lee said.
As foreign policy becomes an increasingly important topic, with wars in Ukraine and Israel dominating the news, Lee’s consistent approach continues to garner him consistent backing from Utah’s conservative Republican voters.
What is Mike Lee’s approval rating?
Utahns who identify as “very conservative” overwhelmingly support Lee, with 78% approving of his performance in office, 12% disapproving and 10% unsure, according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.
Lee garners the approval of 57% of all Utah Republicans, while among all Utahns 48% approve or his performance and 40% disapprove.
The poll also found that 21% of Utah Democrats approve of Lee’s performance while 74% disapprove. It was conducted Oct. 12-23 among 802 Utah residents and has a margin of error of 3.46%.
While the foreign policy views of a given politician may not be a disqualifying factor for many Republican voters, these views are increasingly scrutinized during times of American engagement in foreign conflicts, as is the case now, according to Jason Perry, the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
“I don’t put the foreign policy question as a purity test question really for the party,” Perry said in an interview with the Deseret News. “But the policy itself is something that voters are watching for.”
Perry referred to another recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll showing support remains high among Utahns for increased humanitarian and military funding, without U.S. troops, to Ukraine.
However, this support is waning. In March 2022, one month after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Deseret News reported that 68% of Utahns approved of U.S. military support to Ukraine in the form of weapons and supplies, with 41% of Utahns saying U.S. should do more to aid Ukraine and only 6% saying the U.S. should provide no support at all. By October 2023, Utahn’s support for military aid had fallen to 40%, with 25% saying the U.S. should do more and 20% preferring the country provide no aid at all.
Utah’s senior senator has recognized distinctions between the aid being proposed for Ukraine and that being proposed for other conflicts, Perry said, particularly aid for Israel’s war against Hamas.
“He wants to have a different conversation for Ukraine than he has for Israel,” Perry said.
In this way, House Republicans have followed in Lee’s footsteps.
What is the House doing on Israel and Ukraine aid?
On Thursday evening, the House passed $14.3 billion in stand-alone aid to Israel, in opposition to Biden’s $106 billion request that packaged $14 billion in Israel aid with funding for Ukraine, Taiwan and the border security.
The GOP-led bill was paired with offsetting spending cuts to the Internal Revenue Service, ensuring a swift demise in the Senate or a veto from the president.
Lee told the Deseret News he supports the House bill even as the Senate’s highest ranking Republican, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, continues to be one of the loudest proponents of combining and passing Biden’s aid package under the assumption that the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel are linked in their impact on national security.
“They are separate, distinct issues,” Lee said. Not only is the aid to Israel much smaller than the $60+ billion being requested for Ukraine, Lee said, but the U.S. has a long history of funding Israel’s military operations, particularly its missile defense system.
“There is also a very significant difference in what the Israelis are promising,” Lee said. “What they’re aiming for is a decisive victory that would involve an action of weeks or months, not years.”
Such is not the case in Ukraine, Lee said. “They haven’t identified a path to victory — what a post victory world looks like, how we get to that point, or when or whether or how that will be wrapped up in a short period of time, like the Israelis have. Instead, they’ve told us to brace for a conflict that will likely last for the better part of a decade, perhaps more, and that makes it very, very different.”
Lee’s stance on Ukraine contrasts sharply with that of some of his Senate colleagues.
“It’s not acceptable to abandon Ukraine,” McConnell said this week to CNN’s Manu Raju. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney has also said the only bill that will pass in the Senate is one that includes both Israel and Ukraine funding.
However, McConnell does not speak for all Senate Republicans, Lee said, adding he would be “surprised” if a majority of Senate Republicans would vote for a combined Israel-Ukraine package.
When asked whether increased transparency on Ukraine’s strategy or accountability on the way funds for Ukraine are spent could change his mind, Lee remained skeptical.
“It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario in which they could allay those concerns just by saying we’re going to do more of the same thing we’ve been doing, but we’re going to do it better this time,” Lee said.