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Zelenskyy and the tale of two chambers

Reception in the Senate and House reflected the different dynamics of the two sides

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy, center, is escorted by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to the Old Senate Chamber.
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy, center, is escorted by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to the Old Senate Chamber. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy received multiple standing ovations from senators at an all-senators briefing Thursday morning inside the ornate Old Senate Chamber, demonstrating the gravity of the message of the guest as he made a case for more funding and weapons.

“He points out that this is — his soldiers are fighting, but he’s fighting our war,” Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland told reporters after the meeting, which was closed to the press and public but widely described by attendees afterward.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed Cardin’s assessment in remarks on the Senate floor.

“At the risk of repeating myself, Americans’ support for Ukraine is not charity, it’s an investment in our own direct interest, not least because degrading Russia’s military power helps deter our primary strategic adversary, China,” the Kentucky Republican said after the briefing.

In their social media posts, senators could be seen filling the front rows of the old chamber, primarily used these days for purposes like swearing-in ceremonies and senators-only discussions about the future of the filibuster.

Cardin, who ranks second among Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the choice of venue demonstrated “that this is a historic moment, and that we need to show resolve. The risk factors there are pretty high.”

Bipartisan House leadership met with Zelenskyy earlier Thursday, but there was no similar show of widespread support as in the Senate. Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Zelenskyy had requested another chance to address a joint meeting of Congress, but said there was no time to clear the floor schedule.

“Look what we’re in the middle of. Do we have time for that, to take that, to take that off the floor?” McCarthy replied to a reporter’s question amid his ongoing struggles to pass even the rules for floor action on fiscal 2024 spending bills. “He’s already provided that before. So, I treated it exactly the same as I treat the prime minister of Italy, the prime minister of [the] UK — our closest of allies — bring a bipartisan group together.”

As it turned out, there might have been plenty of time, with the House floor calendar essentially clearing itself after GOP leadership’s latest attempt to adopt a rule for floor consideration of the fiscal 2024 Pentagon spending bill went down again on Thursday morning, this time on a 212-216 vote.

Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said reporters should not read too much into McCarthy not joining Zelenskyy in a walk past the cameras, as did Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.

McCaul, R-Texas, said he and the speaker were both among the House Republicans with “strong support” for Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s military, directing his concerns more at the White House than at the Ukrainian leader.

“We need [a] plan for victory from this administration. We need accountability and we need the weapons … yesterday,” McCaul said.

The scene was decidedly different in the Senate, as Zelenskyy walked through the Senate’s Ohio clock corridor at 10:07 a.m., flanked by Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., on his left and McConnell on his right.

Zelenskyy ignored shouted questions about whether he had secured a guarantee from McCarthy to “fund the war” — a questionable prospect in that chamber amid the spending blockade from a group of conservatives — and whether he felt his message about needing additional weapons and other aid is getting through to U.S. and Western officials during his American visit. Zelenskyy also made his pitch for more Western war help while participating in the United Nationals General Assembly’s annual session this week in New York.

McConnell has been among the most outspoken senators in support of sending additional assistance to Ukraine, saying at one point in a Wednesday floor speech, “I sometimes get the sense that I speak more about why Ukraine matters than the president does.”

President Joe Biden and Zelenskyy were to meet at the White House after the Capitol visit.

The Senate reception, while broadly bipartisan, was not uniformly positive. Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., for instance, issued a statement to announce he would not be attending.

“I will not support another cent going to Ukraine,” Marshall said in a statement, repeating the suggestion that the security assistance is a “blank check.”

Sen. J.D. Vance, an Ohio Republican, told reporters he also skipped the meeting with Zelenskyy. He was the Senate lead on a letter to OMB Director Shalanda Young questioning the need for additional aid without a plan from the Biden administration.

“It would be an absurd abdication of congressional responsibility to grant this request without knowing the answers to these questions,” the letter said. “For these reasons — and certainly until we receive answers to the questions above and others forthcoming — we oppose the additional expenditure for war in Ukraine included in your request.”

And Sen. Ted Cruz, also a Foreign Relations Committee member, directed his criticism at the Biden administration and how some U.S. weapons are being used in Ukraine. The Texas Republican, walking with reporters as Zelenskyy was leaving the Capitol, said the administration has an “incoherent and contradictory approach to this war.”

“He’s sending billions of dollars to the Ukrainians and he’s simultaneously sending billions of dollars to the Iranians, who are providing the drones that are killing Ukrainian soldiers,” Cruz said, referring to $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets unlocked this week as part of a deal that freed five Americans who had been detained by Tehran. “And it makes no sense by the administration to fund both sides of this war.”

David Lerman contributed to this report.

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