WASHINGTON — Hours before the House voted this month to approve $40 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine, lobbyists affiliated with the Heritage Foundation, the prominent conservative think tank, were privately pressing Republicans to oppose the measure.
In a move that seized the attention of conservatives across Washington, the group’s president, Kevin Roberts, released a searing statement — its headline blaring “Ukraine Aid Package Puts America Last” — that framed the measure as reckless and ill-considered.
“America is struggling with record-setting inflation, debt, a porous border, crime and energy depletion,” Mr. Roberts said, “yet progressives in Washington are prioritizing a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine.”
The Heritage Foundation’s position helps explain why 57 House Republicans ultimately voted against the package, in the strongest show of opposition in the party’s ranks to Congress’s deepening support for Ukraine’s effort to fend off the Russian invasion. It reflected the increasing potency of the “America First” impulse in the Republican Party, and how thoroughly it has trickled up to the thought leaders shaping its policy worldview.
And it previewed the growing challenge confronting the party’s leaders, who have toiled to keep the anti-interventionist forces in their ranks at bay should the war drag on, as U.S. officials believe it will, prompting the Biden administration to seek approval of another tranche of aid in the coming months.
In an interview, Mr. Roberts pledged to “fight” any similarly structured bill “every step of the way.”
The stance also reflects a profound shift at the Heritage Foundation, an organization that conservatives have long considered an intellectual and policy guide star.
For years, the group advocated a hawkish foreign policy, enthusiastically backing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, more recently, criticizing President Barack Obama for “always” seeking “to find the absolute minimum level of military power he can get away with.”
But more recently, its lobbying arm has embraced the anti-interventionist fervor that defined President Donald J. Trump’s foreign policy and has swept the Republican Party.
On Thursday, Mr. Roberts published a podcast interview with Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, one of only 11 Senate Republicans to oppose the Ukraine aid package and the author of a recent op-ed entitled “No to Neoconservatism.”
“Neither you, nor we, intend any opposition to an aid package to be dismissive of the heroism that we’ve seen in Ukraine,” Mr. Roberts told Mr. Hawley. “But I can at least speak for Heritage and say, ‘We’ve had enough of business as usual.’”
The core tenets of the organization have long been grounded in promoting free enterprise, limited government and strong national defense. But it has increasingly fed off the rising populism in the party, first during the ascent of the Tea Party and then during the Trump administration, stocking some of the most prominent members of Mr. Trump’s cabinet and boasting that nearly two-thirds of its ideas had been carried out or embraced by his White House during his first year in office.
“What was so surprising about this moment was Heritage, which has always been tough on Russia, strong on NATO and guided by the mantra of ‘What Would Reagan Do?’ took a very odd turn,” said Eric Sayers, a current nonresident at the American Enterprise Institute who began his career at Heritage as a junior staff member.
The move, Mr. Sayers said, reflected the ascendancy in the organization “of more populist forces focused more on following the right than leading it.”
Mr. Roberts, who referred to himself in an interview as a “recovering neocon,” said Heritage’s stance on the aid package reflected “a real skepticism among the conservative grass-roots about the entrenched conservative foreign policy leadership.”
The nation’s financial situation, he said, was forcing “us as a movement to determine that there are a lot of heroic people around the world who will have to rely on the resources from other countries. That doesn’t mean that America shouldn’t be involved, but we need to be less involved.”
His argument echoed the one behind many of the policies Mr. Trump put forward when he complained that NATO allies were not spending enough on the shared costs of defense and argued for a smaller U.S. military footprint around the globe.
It is a position that a growing number of conservative groups are taking. Citizens for Renewing America, an organization led by Russell Vought, Mr. Trump’s former budget director, lobbied against the latest Ukraine aid measure, saying it would leave “the United States on the hook for increased involvement in the war through the remainder of President Biden’s term in office.” Mr. Vought has also lobbied against admitting Finland and Sweden to NATO.
So has Concerned Veterans for America, an advocacy group funded by the Koch network, which called it “a mistake for Congress to fast-track yet another massive aid package to Ukraine when the Biden administration has repeatedly sent confused and mixed signals about its desired end-state in Ukraine.”
But while those groups have long staked out positions against deeper American involvement in what they deem unwise military missions abroad, Heritage’s stance is more recent.
In the months leading up to the vote on the Ukraine aid bill, Heritage’s policy experts argued in favor of an aggressive American role in the conflict, including huge amounts of aid. One report said that the United States “must ensure that its massive humanitarian aid response helps the Ukrainian people to survive Russia’s war of aggression.”
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Another report, published in April, declared: “A sovereign Ukraine is necessary for overall European stability, which is in U.S. and NATO interests. In many ways, the long-term stability of the trans-Atlantic community will be decided in Ukraine. The U.S. must act accordingly.”
James Wallner, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute who previously led policy research at Heritage, said the discrepancy between the tone of the reports and the group’s opposition to the aid bill reflected a situation at the think tank “where the tail starts to wag the dog” and politics, not policy principle, begins to drive decisions.
“I always raise the issue of what happens when this grass-roots army that you’re creating runs counter to the policy research,” Mr. Wallner said in an interview. “Do you just do what the grass-roots army wants? And if that’s the case, are you still a public policy organization that’s putting out cutting-edge research? I think you can’t have both at the same time, and I think that’s the challenge.”
Top officials at the organization contend there has been no shift.
Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage’s lobbying operation, framed the vote against the aid package as a protest against the “binary choice” she said Democrats had set up “between supporting the great people of Ukraine and taking care of a long list of concerns we have here in the United States.”
“We’re not in the isolationist crowd,” Ms. Anderson said. “Heritage has never been that. But we think it is completely reasonable to express caution and concern, and we’re really encouraged so many members echoed those reservations.”
Mr. Roberts insisted that Heritage was still guided by “the Reagan principle of peace through strength” and said the think tank would have supported an aid package narrowly tailored to provide the Ukrainians with weaponry.
“What I’ve found frustrating in the last couple of weeks among all the commentary,” Mr. Roberts said in the interview with Mr. Hawley, “is that somehow we’re being disingenuous by saying, ‘Why can’t we build the wall at the Southern border? Why can’t we attend to problems at home?’ People took that to mean that we were inventing excuses for opposing the Ukraine bill. It seems like awfully legitimate criticism, not just to us in the think tank world, but to the average American.”
But he also conceded that Heritage’s stance reflected a broader “evolution in the movement” that would “require us to be a lot more prudent about our more limited resources we can spend on foreign policy.”
When Mr. Roberts was selected to lead Heritage in October, he emphasized in an op-ed laying out his vision for the think tank that part of his job would be to “open up the movement to fresh American air and to the people we seek to serve.”
“It is the job of conservatives inside the Beltway to better connect with conservatives outside the Beltway,” Mr. Roberts wrote, “and not the other way around.”