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Western Pa. congressional delegation at a crossroads for Ukraine support

A man wearing a suit holds a pencil
J. Scott Applewhite
Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., during a House committee meeting in 2022.

There’s a lot at stake for Ukraine as the U.S. House of Representatives weighs a Senate bill to spend $95 billion in foreign aid — money that would help the country fend off a Russian invasion while also supporting Israel and Taiwan.

Even as I write this, there are efforts underwayto find alternative legislation to support the beleaguered country. And with the House Republican leadership keeping the Senate bill in limbo, our own country’s leadership seems to be at a crossroads as well, along with local members of Western Pennsylvania's congressional delegation.

When Russian leader Vladimir Putin launched his invasion two years ago, there was little doubt about where those officials stood.

Republican Guy Reschenthaler, for one, decried the “attack on the freedom-loving people of Ukraine” as “unjustified, unprovoked, and a flagrant violation of international law.

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“I …wholeheartedly affirm my commitment to preserving the safety and security of the U.S. and our allies,” he said. He later fretted that appeasers might “sell Ukraine down the river.”

Countries like Russia “should think twice before potentially attacking American allies,” agreed fellow Western Pennsylvania Republican Mike Kelly back then. “[T]he U.S. will always defend freedom.”

But when the Senate passed an aid bill earlier this year that included spending for the U.S. border, Kelly objected that it was “more of a foreign aid package than a border security package with half of the funding earmarked for Ukraine.”

Kelly’s office did not directly respond to queries about the new $95 billion measure. Instead, it directed me to an interview Kelly gave Wednesday to Joe Piscopo, a former Saturday Night Live cast member who now hosts a conservative talk show.

The two men mostly discussed immigration. But as Piscopo wrapped up the interview he asked, “And by the way, that foreign aid bill — that will not go through the House, sir, you’re thinking, correct?”

A man in a white shirt and red tie speaks at a lectern
Sue Ogrocki
U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, right, speaks as U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, left, the Hon. Fred Keller, second from left, and Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump, second from right, look on during a Trump campaign rally, Saturday, July 29, 2023, in Erie, Pa.

"It will not,” Kelly responded. He observed that Donald Trump, “the greatest businessman ever to serve as president,” had a better idea: “If you want to help Ukraine … loan them the money and then let them pay it back. Why do we continually tax our own people to give money away?”

Reschenthaler’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on the Senate bill. But he’s been wavering on Ukraine for months. Last July he backed a proposal by Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz to cut off funding for Ukraine entirely … but then opposed a similar Gaetz amendment a few months later.

It’s emblematic of a broader swing within the American Right, led by Trump’s apparent desire for closer ties with Russia. Right-wing media personality Tucker Carlson now praises Putin’s country, and even longtime Russia hawks such as U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham are backing Trump’s approach.

Some Democrats have concerns about the bill, too. It contains $14 billion in military spending to help Israel and fund U.S. activities in the region — more than it envisions spending on the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza amid the war there. Some progressive Democrats are wary of enabling an Israel government whose treatment of Palestinians they have long criticized.

The office of Democrat Summer Lee, for one, declined to comment on the bill, citing the uncertainty about what proposal Republicans might put forward. But Lee has been a forceful critic of Israel, so it’s hard to imagine her joining an effort to provide more funding for its current policies.

About the only member of Southwestern Pennsylvania's delegation openly supporting the bill is Chris Deluzio, who’s championed both Israel and Ukraine. His office said Wednesday that he’d back the measure.

By every reckoning, so would most members of the House, if given the chance. That’s why elected officials on both sides of the aisle are looking for alternative proposals, and pondering arcane legislative maneuvers to do an end-run around the opposition of leadership and party hardliners.

But after months of delay, Ukraine may be running short on time and ammunition.

“We are very concerned that Ukraine’s not going to survive without the help,” said Stephen Haluszczak, a Carnegie resident and active volunteer for Ukrainian causes in the area.

Haluszczak was wary of getting mired in partisan arguments, but he worried the political debate was losing sight of the Ukrainians themselves.

“It's hard to fathom that this is going on, and people don't get it,” he said.

Haluszczak choked up a few times during our conversation, about the roughly 1,000 refugees he said have made their way to the Pittsburgh region, and those still in Ukraine.

“It's hard to watch this and know that people don’t understand what is happening,” he said. “They don't look.”

But when I asked how Ukrainians made sense of the American debate about their country’s fate, Haluszczak told me they understood it all too well.

“They get politics, and they know Putin,” he said. “They say, ‘His plan was to wait out the West.’ People want a quick victory, and they get bored.”

There was a time, back when Joe Piscopo was known for being funny, that Ronald Reagan offered a vision of the United States as a “shining city on the hill,” rather than a payday lender to desperate nations. A time when NATO was established with help from Republican U.S. Sen. Arthur Vandberg, who famously asserted, “Politics stops at the water’s edge.”

Of course, soaring rhetoric can cloak cynical policies. And some of our worst foreign-policy catastrophes arguably happened because debate was short-circuited by bipartisan consensus, or the fear of looking soft on terrorism or communism. Still, it’s jarring to contrast the pride Americans take in the sacrifices they once made for freedom — here and overseas — with the sullen, inward tone of our politics now.

A day after his Piscopo interview, Kelly announced his support for the Flowers for Fallen Heroes Act, which helps Americans place flowers on the graves of service members buried overseas. “This legislation allows us to take one more step to honor their service,” Kelly said in a statement.

While we’re at it, maybe we can send some flowers to the Ukrainians, too.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.