Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used his first wartime visit to a foreign capital since Russia mounted a full-scale invasion of his country to try charming Capitol Hill into continuing financial support for his government’s war effort.
Based on the show of congressional support — and in some cases, the lack of it — that he received Wednesday during a special joint meeting of Congress, it was not clear whether he succeeded.
That’s not because Zelenskyy’s remarks were not passionate, rousing and stirring, but because a sizable number of lawmakers were not in the House chamber.
“This battle cannot be frozen or postponed. It cannot be ignored, hoping that the ocean or something else will provide a protection,” Zelenskyy — clad in his wartime uniform of boots, khakis and an olive-green shirt — told lawmakers.
While a brewing winter storm contributed to some lawmakers staying away from the nighttime address, some House Republicans who oppose financial support for Ukraine, like Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, made it known they were boycotting the speech.
Some House Republicans who oppose sending additional aid attended the speech, including Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Lauren Boebert of Colorado. But the duo remained seated during the many standing ovations Zelenskyy received throughout his roughly 20-minute speech.
“Our two nations are allies in this battle, and next year will be [a] turning point, I know it, the point when Ukrainian courage and American resolve must guarantee the future of our common freedom,” Zelenskyy said.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, who is still working to lock in the necessary votes to become speaker in January when Republicans take control of the chamber, did join in the standing ovations. But he was notably more tempered in his applause than the Democrats cheering across the aisle.
An informal headcount found roughly 90 of a possible 213 House Republicans attended the speech. Empty seats could be spotted throughout the Republican side of the House chamber. The Democratic side was packed.
With the $44.9 billion in new emergency military, economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine that Congress is on track to clear by week’s end as part of the fiscal 2023 omnibus spending measure, total approved American taxpayer support to Ukraine since February will amount to roughly $100 billion.
“Your money is not charity. It is an investment in the global security and democracy, that we handle in the most responsible way,” Zelenskyy said to a standing ovation for which Democrats were especially boisterous.
While strong majorities of Americans continue to back providing economic and military assistance to Ukraine, some 47 percent believe Washington should urge Ukraine to enter peace talks as soon as possible with Russia. That’s according to a Nov. 18-20 survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
“It is in your power really to help us bring to justice everyone who started this unprovoked and unjust war,” Zelenskyy told lawmakers. “Let’s do it.”
During a joint press conference earlier Wednesday at the White House, President Joe Biden defended Zelenskyy’s position that now is not the time to pursue peace talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose troops are struggling to hold the territory they seized in Eastern Ukraine earlier this year after several retreats.
“You’re open to pursuing a just peace,” Biden said of Zelenskyy. “We also know that Putin has no intention, no intention of stopping this cruel war.”
Biden predicted the American people would continue to support sending assistance to Ukrainians defending their own country “against Russian aggressions as long as it takes.”
“I want to thank the members of Congress … for their broad bipartisan support to Ukraine, and I look forward to signing the omnibus bill soon, which includes $45 billion … in additional funding for Ukraine,” the U.S. president said.
Speaking to reporters after Zelenskyy’s speech, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said he hoped the Ukrainian leader’s remarks shook up Republican opponents of further aid.
“I hope people realize how important passing this package is,” said the New York Democrat, referring to the $45 billion in supplemental assistance to Ukraine that lawmakers could take up this week.
Schumer said Zelenskyy told him in a private meeting before the speech that failure by Congress to pass the aid “would mean we would lose the war.”
The Biden administration used the occasion of Zelenskyy’s visit to announce two large new tranches of security and humanitarian assistance.
The announcement covered $1.9 billion in additional weapons shipments, including the first ever transfer to Ukraine of a Patriot air defense system. That brings the total amount of U.S. security assistance Ukraine has received since Russia mounted its full-scale invasion in February to over $20 billion.
What’s more, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced Ukraine will receive an additional $374 million in humanitarian assistance.
That aid — funneled through United Nations agencies including the World Food Program, the World Health Organization and UNICEF — will be used to “provide multi-sector humanitarian assistance to alleviate the suffering of millions of people in the worst-affected areas of the country, including people displaced by fighting,” according to a USAID statement. Since February, the United States has provided over $1.9 billion in humanitarian support to Ukrainians.
“Tonight, President Zelenskyy spoke directly to the American people outlining how his nation is fighting not just for their own freedom, but for the future of democracy everywhere,” Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill, co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, said in a statement following the speech. “I sincerely hope that all of my colleagues take his words to heart and continue to offer the United States’ steadfast support for Ukraine. Slava Ukraini.”
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.