Ukraine War Shifts the Agenda in Congress, Empowering the Center


WASHINGTON — The escalating crisis in Ukraine is upending policy and political thinking on both the left and the right on Capitol Hill, as an immediate threat to the global order and soaring energy prices empower the political center at the expense of the two parties’ flanks.

When lawmakers convene on Wednesday for a virtual speech by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, Republicans and Democrats will be confronting a changed environment, for better and for worse.

“It’s bringing Congress together in a way, frankly, I haven’t seen in my 12 years,” Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware and a confidant of President Biden, said on Tuesday of the consensus to support Ukraine. “You’d have to go back to 9/11 to see such a unified commitment.”

That has meant a retreat by both parties from the policy proposals and political messages that most thrill their core supporters. On the left, Democrats are acquiescing to higher military spending and dropping a bid to pull back rapidly from fossil fuels. On the right, Trump-era isolationism and attacks on the trans-Atlantic alliance are being relegated to the fringe in Congress. Plans to make the president’s son Hunter Biden and Ukrainian corruption front and center in a Republican-controlled House now seem far-fetched.

“It’s grounding,” said Representative Peter Meijer, Republican of Michigan, who was once an intelligence analyst in Afghanistan and now faces a challenger on his right endorsed by former President Donald J. Trump. “You can propose something that outstrips the bounds of reality, that’s fine. Then you look at what’s happening in Ukraine, and it’s like a car accident, a near-death experience that snaps you back to reality.”

Mr. Zelensky is expected on Wednesday to reiterate his request for a complicated swap that would send MIG fighter jets to Ukraine from Poland, and U.S.-made F-16 fighters to Poland. That could prompt accusations from some Republicans that the Biden administration, which has opposed the swap as a dangerous escalation of the conflict with no real military purpose, is soft on Russia.

He is also likely to ask the United States to help close the airspace over his country to Russian aircraft, as he did on Tuesday when he addressed Canada’s Parliament.

Republicans and Democrats alike have questioned the MIG deal now that the Defense Department has raised specific concerns about whether Ukraine could even fly the planes.

It is unclear whether the moment amounts to a hiatus in the partisan wars over national security. Republican leaders continue to strafe the president, accusing him of being weak toward Russia, coddling “petro-dictators” and betraying America’s energy security.

“President Biden continues to have this attitude of, ‘Well, I don’t want to help Ukraine too much’ because he might offend Putin,” Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican, said this week on Fox Business, referring to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin.

Democrats are incredulous that Republicans — a vast majority of whom did not criticize Mr. Trump for repeatedly standing by Mr. Putin, undermining NATO and then withholding military aid from Mr. Zelensky to pressure him to dig up political dirt on Mr. Biden — have the gall to question the current president’s willingness to confront Russia.

“If you are a reporter, and there is a battle for the free world led by Zelensky and Biden, you don’t have to pretend not to remember that Republicans exonerated Trump for extorting Zelensky,” said Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii.

But beyond partisan potshots, there are signs of the war’s very real impact. In December, when the House passed defense policy legislation authorizing $768 billion in military spending, 51 Democrats voted no, mainly because they saw that as far too much money. Last week, when the House funded the military and provided even more money — $782 billion and billions more for Ukraine — the number of Democrats voting in opposition dropped to 15.

“Defense budgets should be driven by our needs, not some artificial target, but it’s pretty clear we are living in a dangerous time,” said Representative Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, a Democrat in a difficult re-election fight.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington and the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, conceded that the current crisis had sapped momentum, at least for now, from efforts to slash military spending.

“I do think Ukraine has just made it harder,” she said. “We had thought with the ending of the war in Afghanistan, we could push for a real reduction in the defense budget, and there will be another opportunity. But look, this is an epic battle.”

Republicans are getting their own reality check. Under Mr. Trump, a growing faction of the party was pushing isolationism, questioning alliances and trade pacts, and pressing an “America First” agenda that would have fit well in the national mood leading up to World War II, Mr. Meijer said.

In recent days, Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a traditionalist Republican, sat down with the German ambassador to the United States to thank her for her country’s commitment to NATO’s defense and its aid to Ukraine.

In an interview, Mr. Cole even suggested reviving the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a landmark trade pact negotiated by President Barack Obama that would have tied together the economies of Asia, Australia, New Zealand, North America and South America to isolate China. In one of his first acts as president, Mr. Trump scuttled the agreement.

“Ukraine has got a lot of Republicans rethinking the importance of international alliances,” Mr. Cole said. “Other countries are not always a burden. They’re quite often an asset.”

Fealty to Mr. Trump’s foreign policy suddenly seems like a potential liability. Former Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina, who is running for the Senate seat held by Richard M. Burr, a Republican who is retiring, hit his Trump-endorsed primary opponent, Representative Ted Budd, as pro-Putin in a new advertisement this week.

“Budd’s votes have been friendly toward Russia,” Mr. McCrory says in the ad. “He voted against sanctions on Russia. These are serious times, and we need serious senators.”

For Democrats, the shift in priorities has had a price. Taking his cues from his party’s environmental wing, Mr. Biden had hoped to move the United States away from fossil fuels, blocking new leases for oil and gas exploration on federal land, opening up large swaths of ocean and land to wind and solar development, and pushing an ambitious timetable to move the country to electric cars and trucks.

Now, the fossil fuel industry is ascendant. More mainstream Democrats are using the language of Republicans, talking about an “all of the above” energy strategy that includes renewable fuels and oil and gas. Natural gas is again spoken of as a “bridge” fuel to clean energy, not an enemy of the planet.

“Some of my colleagues are presenting a false choice,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, a leading voice of centrist Democrats. “You can be for alternative energy and energy independence with aggressive long-term goals, and be for fully tapping our domestic energy resources.”

In private gatherings of House Democrats, Mr. Malinowski said, a few lawmakers still speak up against the extraction of any fossil fuels, “but they’re not really a powerful voice in our meetings.”

Republicans have other course corrections to contend with. Conservatives like Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, have signaled that they want to revive investigations of Hunter Biden and the lucrative seat he once held on the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian gas company. With such investigations would come accusations of rampant corruption in Ukraine and unsubstantiated accusations that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered with U.S. elections in 2016.

But Ukraine is not the political target it once was. In a September 2019 poll by YouGov, 36 percent of registered voters in the United States were not sure whether Ukraine was friendly or unfriendly. Only 41 percent called the nation friendly or an ally. In a new YouGov survey, 81 percent of American voters said Ukraine was either friendly or an ally, a number that rivals or surpasses those for longtime U.S. partners like France and Japan.

Ms. Jayapal warned that dredging up Burisma would allow Democrats to remind the nation that every Republican except Senator Mitt Romney of Utah voted to allow Mr. Trump to go unpunished for humiliating and strong-arming Mr. Zelensky for his personal political benefit. And Mr. Cole counseled against such an approach.

“People might be a little less likely to bring that up,” he said of Burisma, especially when Ukrainians are “the point of the spear against Russian aggression.”

“These are people who have bought into defending their country with their lives, at great risk and sacrifice,” Mr. Cole said. “I don’t think there will be a lot of investigations that put Ukraine into a negative light.”



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