Lawmaker pressure on Biden hits its limits
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have repeatedly been steps ahead of the Biden administration in calling to escalate the U.S. response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — proposals the White House ultimately adopted.
But they may be about to meet the fruit-bearing limits of their pressure campaigns.
The House is set to vote this week on legislation to revoke Russia’s normal trade status, just days after approving a ban on Russian oil imports, which the Biden administration had initially resisted.
And Biden is set to sign a massive government funding package that includes $13.6 billion in humanitarian and military assistance to Ukraine — a number that ballooned from the administration’s initial $6.4 billion request a few weeks ago.
But the number of tools available to the administration is quickly dwindling, and the list of strategies lawmakers are now advocating include several tactics — no-fly zones, direct delivery of weapons and aid — that Biden has ruled out in no uncertain terms.
Those administrative red lines have highlighted the complexities of confronting a global nuclear power controlled by an unpredictable leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s had imperial designs on Ukraine stretching back decades and doesn’t appear to be dissuaded by the global backlash against him.
They’ve also illustrated the limits of Congress in guiding America’s role in the Ukrainian defense effort, even as voter sentiment around the country is putting ever more pressure on Washington policymakers to intervene more aggressively.
The Biden administration has maintained that it’s necessary to coordinate actions with European allies to show a united front against Russia — which means the U.S. is at times slower to act than lawmakers might like.
Speaking to House Democrats on Friday in Philadelphia, where the caucus gathered for its annual strategy conference, Biden acknowledged the frustration simmering among a public that’s watching Putin’s atrocities unfold on cable news and social media.
Biden said the U.S. response to Russia’s belligerence has, at times, been slower and less aggressive than he’d like. But it’s better to go slower with allies, he argued, than race ahead alone.
“Folks, I know I’ve occasionally frustrated you, but more important than us moving when we want to is making sure all of NATO is together,” he said. “They have different vulnerabilities than we do.”
As an example, the president cited his recent decision to ban Russian fuel. That move was made because the United States gets just a small percentage of its oil and gas from Russia, he emphasized, whereas many European nations are reliant on Russian energy to a much greater extent. Given that geopolitical discrepancy, Biden said he delayed the announcement of the U.S. ban until he had assured European leaders that they wouldn’t be expected to take the same step.
“It took a long time sitting with my counterparts and saying, ‘Look, we’re going to block oil, but I’m not going to ask you to do it,’ ” Biden said.
Biden also sought to throw cold water on the idea that the U.S. should adopt a more hands-on approach when it comes to bolstering Kyiv’s defenses, either by policing a no-fly zone over Ukraine or delivering weapons directly.
Those proposals are gaining support from lawmakers in both parties on Capitol Hill, but the president is pushing back hard against them, warning with some impatience that such a strategy would necessarily involve clashes between Russian and U.S. troops — and launch a third World War in the process.
“The idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews, just understand — and don’t kid yourself, no matter what you all say — that’s called World War III, okay?” he told House Democrats. “Let’s get it straight here, guys.”
A growing debate surrounds the potential delivery of dozens of MiG-29s, a Russian-made fighter jet, from Poland to Ukraine. Leaders in Warsaw have proposed such a transfer, with the idea that the U.S. would backfill the void in Poland’s air defenses with American jets. But fearing a direct conflict with Putin, Polish leaders want the aircraft to move through U.S. military bases in Germany — a tactic rejected by the Pentagon.
Some military experts are also warning that the aging aircraft would be no match for Russia’s more modern fighters and air defense systems, creating what would essentially be a suicide operation for the Ukrainian pilots assigned to conduct it. Still, there’s growing pressure on Capitol Hill to solidify a deal.
“It’s complicated, but I think the consensus … is that we want to get those planes to Poland,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Friday in Philadelphia.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, just returned from the Polish border, where he was left with the impression that an agreement on the planes was already done. Now he says he’s “looking at alternative ways.”
“Either the Poles change their mind and we’ll do it as initially planned,” Meeks said. “Or we’ll give to them other resources.”
As the debate evolves, the conditions on the ground continue to worsen in Ukraine, where hundreds of civilians have been killed and almost 3 million people have fled to neighboring countries. The atrocities have piled pressure on lawmakers to heighten efforts to defend the outgunned Ukrainians from Putin’s advances, which have increasingly targeted civilian areas.
Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the majority whip, was among the many Democrats who visited Selma, Ala., this month to remember a bloody voting rights march there in 1965. He said talk of the violence in Ukraine was everywhere.
“I was absolutely floored when person after person came to me saying, ‘We’re all for voting rights, but if you don’t do something to help end this war there’s going to be nothing to vote for,’ ” Clyburn said. “This is how deep this goes.”
Lawmakers are likely to get direct appeals from the Ukrainian government to do more in the coming days.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced Monday that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will address members of Congress virtually on Wednesday morning.
“The Congress remains unwavering in our commitment to supporting Ukraine as they face Putin’s cruel and diabolical aggression, and to passing legislation to cripple and isolate the
Russian economy as well as deliver humanitarian, security and economic assistance to Ukraine,” Pelosi and Schumer said in a joint statement.
Morgan Chalfant and Alex Gangitano contributed.
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