Navalny’s death shocks, but doesn’t shift, divided US Congress

By Thomson Reuters Feb 16, 2024 | 2:58 PM

By Patricia Zengerle and Makini Brice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers expressed shock and outrage at the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Friday, but the news looked unlikely to bridge deep divides over whether the United States should continue its military support for Ukraine.

“There are some (members of Congress) that I don’t think can be persuaded because the narrative is so strong,” Republican Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters on Friday.

“I think the brainwashing, if you will, that we have to choose between our southern border and Ukraine has been out there. I don’t agree with that,” McCaul, an advocate for aid to Kyiv as it battles a nearly two-year-long Russian invasion, said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

The reports of Navalny’s death come as the U.S. political world battles over how and whether to stand up to Russia, particularly after Washington has approved more than $110 billion in defense assistance for Ukraine, and Biden’s request for another $60 billion for Kyiv is stalled in the U.S. Congress.

Hardline conservatives, many of whom argue that U.S. funds should not be sent abroad at a time of steep federal deficits, were clear on Friday that Navalny’s death will do little to settle those political fights.

Asked if Navalny’s death affected his thinking on the need to counter Russia more forcefully, Republican Representative Matt Gaetz said in an emailed statement: “No. I don’t think we were another $60 billion to Ukraine away from saving Navalny.”

With its $95 billion military aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan in peril, President Joe Biden’s administration has been issuing increasingly dire warnings that Ukraine needs more assistance.

“History’s watching the House of Representatives … Failure to support Ukraine at this critical moment will never be forgotten,” Biden told reporters at the White House on Friday.


So far, opponents of Ukraine aid appear unmoved.

“The death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is a tragedy and demonstrates the fact that Vladimir Putin is a dictator,” Republican Representative Byron Donalds said in an emailed statement.

“However, it does not change domestic politics within the United States.”

Biden asked for the additional Ukraine funds in October, but they did not pass as Republicans insisted the package include unrelated changes in U.S. policy on immigration and control of the border with Mexico.

Former President Donald Trump, the party’s frontrunner in the race for the White House this year, rejected a Senate compromise that included border provisions, and Senate Republicans blocked it. But in a surprise shift, the Democratic-controlled Senate overwhelmingly passed the security package without most of the border measures this week.

Republican House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson, whose caucus is closely allied with Trump, said the Republican-controlled chamber would not rush to vote, insisting that the bill must include tougher border measures. The House is not expected to take up the bill for weeks.

Johnson issued a statement harshly criticizing Putin as “a vicious dictator” after reports of Navalny’s death.

He did not, however, refer specifically to the aid package, in calling for opposition to Russia and measures to limit Putin’s ability to pay for the war.

“As Congress debates the best path forward to support Ukraine, the United States, and our partners, must be using every means available to cut off Putin’s ability to fund his unprovoked war in Ukraine and aggression against the Baltic states,” Johnson’s statement said.

Among Russia hawks in the Republican party there is growing skepticism that even major events, like the death of a prominent opposition leader or this week’s revelation of a possible Russian nuclear-related threat in space, can tilt hardliners who embrace a more isolationist “America First” approach to world affairs advocated by Trump.

Asked whether he thought reports of Navalny’s death would change the discussion, McCaul said: “Well to the extent members of Congress know who he is.”

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Makini Brice; Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper; Editing by Don Durfee and Toby Chopra)