8 min read

Zelensky returns to Washington

Volodymyr Zelensky is back in D.C. Will lawmakers let him return home empty-handed?
Zelensky returns to Washington
(Official U.S. House Photo)

Good morning! It’s Thursday, September 21, 2023. The 2024 elections are 411 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Volodymyr Zelensky has visited the United States four times in his four years as Ukraine’s president — and been sucked further and further into the Washington political vortex with each visit.

His first appearance in the U.S. took place exactly four years ago this week, in September 2019. He was only a few months into his transition from comedian to president, and just beginning his new role as a bit player in Donald Trump’s first impeachment probe, which was launched the day Zelensky landed in New York. Meeting with Trump on the sidelines of the UN, and desperate to stay out of the intensifying scandal, Zelensky insisted that Trump had not pressured him to investigate Joe Biden in exchange for military aid. “Nobody pushed me,” Zelensky said. “Good phone call. It was normal.”

Trump promised to invite Zelensky to the White House, but never got around to doing it. By the time Zelensky did visit the president’s mansion, it was August 2021 and Biden was his host. According to Franklin Foer’s new book on the Biden presidency, the meeting did not go particularly well. Zelensky “bombed” the meeting, Foer writes, and “pissed Biden off” with his criticisms of NATO and long list of demands.

Zelensky received a very different reception when he returned in December 2022. By now, Zelensky had transformed into a war leader and an international symbol; it was his first trip outside Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion. Zelensky was hailed as a latter-day Churchill and given a hero’s welcome, both at the White House and at the Capitol, where he delivered a primetime address akin to a State of the Union. “The American people have been with you every step of the way, and we will stay with you,” Biden told him. “We will stay with you for as long as it takes.”

That promise from Biden — not even a year old — is now being tested, as Zelensky returns to Washington today for his most urgent American mission yet: persuading Republican lawmakers to continue funding Ukraine’s war effort.

Zelensky has a packed itinerary for his day in DC: meetings with Biden and other officials at the White House, a huddle with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon, an event with the Congressional Ukraine Caucus at the National Archives, and a session with all 100 senators in the ceremonial Old Senate Chamber of the Capitol.

Notably, Zelensky was not given a similar opportunity to meet with the whole House, where most of the legislative opposition to Ukraine aid resides.

According to the New York Times, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy declined to convene a chamber-wide meeting with Zelensky; instead, McCarthy, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), and a select group of committee leaders will sit down with the Ukrainian leader privately.

Per Punchbowl News, McCarthy also denied Zelensky’s request to address another joint session of Congress, as then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) invited him to do last year.

It remains to be seen whether U.S. aid for Ukraine will survive the change in House leadership. At the time of Zelensky’s 2022 visit, lawmakers were on the verge of approving a $44 billion Ukrainian aid package, which was ushered to passage in one of the last acts of Democrats’ complete control of Congress.

Now, a $24 billion Ukrainian aid request from the White House is sitting before lawmakers with a much less certain fate. The request has gotten tied up in the unfurling fiscal drama taking over Washington: bipartisan Senate leaders want to attach it to a continuing resolution (CR) temporarily extending government funding; neither of McCarthy’s proposed CRs have included Ukraine funding.

The dispute could help launch the U.S. into a government shutdown, which would threaten the Pentagon’s ability to send weapons that have already been approved for Kyiv.

In a letter to the White House this morning, six Republican senators and 23 Republican House members flatly rejected the new aid request. Many of the House signatories are the same Republicans holding up McCarthy’s spending proposal, one reason why he cannot afford to anger them by tacking on Ukraine aid or inviting Zelensky for a chamber-wide meeting.

Ukraine is just one front in McCarthy’s war with his own members, which has become increasingly personal. “How does this make you feel?” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) wrote on X this week, attaching a photo of McCarthy wearing a Ukraine flag lapel pin.

“The American people deserve to know what their money has gone to,” the group of GOP lawmakers wrote. They continued:

How is the counteroffensive going? Are the Ukrainians any closer to victory than they were 6 months ago? What is our strategy, and what is the president’s exit plan? What does the administration define as victory in Ukraine? What assistance has the United States provided Ukraine under Title 10? It would be an absurd abdication of congressional responsibility to grant this request without knowing the answers to these questions.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive, launched in July, has gained some ground, but only a small amount. The war remains a grinding stalemate. As CNN notes, it will likely become even worse come winter:

Once the snows arrive, Moscow will attempt to consolidate further still its current front line. Daylight hours will be fewer. The cold will leave Ukrainian attacking units greatly more vulnerable as they try to push deeper into Russian lines. It will make an already hideous task yet more bloody.

In his meetings with U.S. officials, Zelensky will likely sound similar themes as he did this week at the UN, where he lambasted Russia’s “mass destruction” and urged the global community to continue supporting Ukraine’s defenses.

“Zelensky is a great spokesperson,” House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Turner (R-OH) said on “Face the Nation” last Sunday, noting that Zelensky has a higher approval rating among Americans than many U.S. leaders. “He really makes the case better than anyone that this is a fight for democracy and that Putin’s goals are well beyond Ukraine into Eastern Europe and into the Baltics. Having him here is going to be very, very persuasive.”

But Ukraine allies on both sides of the aisle increasingly fear Zelensky will return home empty-handed. When Turner’s “pet unicorn has offspring, I’d like to buy one of the colts,” one senior Republican lawmaker joked to Politico in response to the chairman’s optimism.

House update.

Kevin McCarthy is gearing up for a second CR push, laying out a new proposal to Republican members last night after his first attempt was quashed by conservatives.  

Per CNN, McCarthy’s new plan is a temporary spending patch that would fund the government for 30 days at $1.471 trillion spending levels. The CR would also include border security changes and a commission to address the debt. McCarthy also announced his plans to pursue a $1.526 trillion spending level for the 12 year-long appropriations bills. (During the debt ceiling negotiations, he and President Biden agreed to a $1.59 trillion spending level.)

Some of the GOP defectors announced their support for the revised CR, but others remain dug in, making it unclear whether the plan has enough votes to pass. (Former President Donald Trump announced his opposition last night, which could make McCarthy’s path more difficult.) Getting a CR through the House would strengthen McCarthy’s negotiating posision with the Senate — especially after several days of chaos in his conference — but the measure is still a far ways away from anything that could be approved by both chambers of Congress.

Some updates on the potential for a bipartisan funding solution, of the type I wrote about in Wednesday’s newsletter:

  • The House Problem Solvers Caucus — which includes 32 House Democrats and 32 House Republicans — endorsed a bipartisan framework Wednesday for a 100-day CR that would include Ukraine aid and bipartisan border fixes.
  • Members of the caucus are considering forcing the bipartisan CR onto the floor with a discharge petition, which allows a simple majority of rank-and-file House members to override the speaker and trigger a House vote on a piece of legislation.
  • Per Politico, a group of centrist House Democrats are holding “secret talks” with McCarthy allies about the possibility of Democrats bailing out the speaker on a potential motion to vacate in exchange for a bipartisan CR.

Senate update.

Spending remains stuck in the Senate as well, with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) insisting on receiving a vote on his bipartisan bill to prevent future shutdowns in exchange for allowing a “minibus” package to move forward.

Senate negotiators are reportedly close to an agreement.  

Meanwhile, another stalemate that has hung over the Senate is beginning to lift. After months of Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) delaying approval of 300+ military promotions, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) began forcing votes on some of the most prominent nominees last night.

Gen. C. Q. Brown was promptly confirmed as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by an 83-11 vote, with additional service chiefs set to receive confirmation today.  

Schumer used the exact procedural moves I previewed for you in July. “We are ready to put an end to this sooner rather than later,” the majority leader said Wednesday, although the option to force a vote had been available to him this entire time.

More news to know.

Rupert Murdoch steps down as chairman of Fox and News Corp / CNBC

Fed keeps rates unchanged and signals optimism about a potential ‘soft landing’ / AP

Inside the Biden-Netanyahu meeting / Axios

Former White House aide claims Giuliani groped her on Jan. 6, according to book / Politico

Judge rejects Hunter Biden’s request for remote arraignment / NYT

Trump vows to invoke a wartime law to deport suspected foreign gang members and drug dealers / NBC

DeSantis collapses in New Hampshire as backers beg: ‘Get your ass up here’ / The Messenger

Tim Scott floats potential running mates as he seeks traction in New Hampshire / Time

The day ahead.

White House: President Biden will meet with Zelensky at the White House. Later tonight, he will deliver remarks at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s annual gala.

Senate: The upper chamber will continue churning through service chief nominations, voting to confirm Gen. Randy George as Army Chief of Staff and Gen. Eric Smith as Marine Corps Commandant. In a procedural vote on George’s nomination Wednesday night, he was advanced 92-1.

House: The lower chamber is expected to hold another procedural vote on the Republican defense spending package. This same vote failed on Tuesday due to opposition from five Republicans. After last night’s conference meeting, Speaker McCarthy now believes he has the votes to advance the legislation.

Campaign trail: Republican businessman David McCormick is expected to announce his plans today to challenge Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) in 2024. This will be McCormick’s second Senate bid in as many cycles: he came up short in the GOP primary for Pennsylvania’s other seat last year. McCormick, a former hedge fund CEO and the husband of ex-Trump aide Dina Powell, was the GOP’s top recruit to take on Casey.

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