Zelensky is set to deliver a rare wartime speech to Congress in the morning, less than two weeks after the Ukrainian leader held a virtual meeting with US lawmakers. He is widely expected to use Wednesday’s address — as he has in speeches to other friendly governments — to make an impassioned appeal yet again to the US for more help, including for certain kinds of military assistance that the Biden administration has already come out against.
Lawmakers and aides on Capitol Hill told CNN that they expect the next major round of deliberations in Washington on how to best aid Ukraine’s fight against Russia will, in no small part, hinge on what exactly Zelensky asks for when he speaks to Congress. The speech comes as some on Capitol Hill are losing patience with the administration’s pace and its unwillingness — for now — to go as far as Zelensky has wanted in supplying fighter jets and imposing a no-fly zone over the country. Those two things are likely to be among the things the Ukrainian leader asks for in Wednesday’s speech, but the administration has ruled them out over concerns of how Putin would interpret those moves.
While the US government has largely responded to the war with a bipartisan support of Ukraine, patience is starting to wear thin for some lawmakers — including high-ranking Republicans who had been wary of criticizing the administration’s response until now. Biden and his administration have not responded as quickly as some in Congress would like as the President aims to keep American allies united in their response to the crisis.
“Everything Congress has asked to do, (the administration) has originally said no. And then later on, they say yes after our allies do it,” said Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It’s slow. It’s excruciating.”
“We’re going to be hearing from Zelensky. So, I think depending upon what we hear then, and depending upon what action the White House takes next, we’ll see,” said Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who is one of many lawmakers who have advocated for sending fighter jets and other military machinery to Ukrainian forces. “In areas where we believe we need to push harder — and where we’re hearing from back home that we need to push harder — we’re going to express that to the White House.”
One chief of staff to a member of the House put it bluntly when asked which issue their boss was likely to public push for next: “(Zelensky’s) address to Congress will shape a lot of that,” they said.
Ukrainian President to take virtual center stage at the Capitol
Members said they don’t expect Zelensky to mince words when it comes to the help that his country needs.
“I suspect he will be appreciative of what we have done,” Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman said, predicting what he expects from Zelensky’s speech: “He will also be very direct about what they need now and the fact that this is a moment of truth.”
A White House official at the time said they would reject any suggestion that congressional pressure had pushed the White House into action, and officials have been stressing that the administration’s decision-making process on Ukraine aid has prioritized consultations with its European allies.
The question of whether to send the Soviet-era fighter jets to Ukraine — and how — has emerged as a particularly thorny debate. In what the White House would later refer to as a “temporary breakdown in communication” last week, the Polish government proposed sending jets to a US Air Force base in Germany, and for those planes to then be transported to Ukraine — only to have that idea swiftly rejected by US officials. The logistical challenges — as well as the risk of a direct US-Russia confrontation — was too great, the administration warned.
But in the days since that rejection, Democratic and Republicans lawmakers alike have only ratcheted up calls for the administration to provide Ukraine with such fighter jets, along with other military tools like air defense systems.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including some of its most hawkish members, are largely in agreement, though Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia recently said he would not want to take the option off the table.
White House facing tough next steps
Hours after Zelensky has addressed Congress, Biden is set to deliver a speech of his own to detail US assistance to Ukraine. The two presidents have spoken regularly in recent weeks and White House officials have been in daily contact with Zelensky’s staff, a level of coordination that leads the White House to believe they will not be surprised by anything in the Ukrainian President’s speech on Wednesday.
At Tuesday’s White House press briefing, Psaki credited Zelensky’s “passion,” “courage” and “bravery” for having helped to expedite a “historic amount of military and security assistance and weapons” to Ukraine and acknowledged the cries for a range of additional actions that have come from Congress.
“Yes, we recognize there are a range of bipartisan calls,” Psaki said. “But what we have the responsibility to do here is to assess what the impact is on the United States and our own national security.”
Lawmakers say that when they call on the White House to weigh certain options when it comes to helping Ukraine, they are channeling things they’ve heard from their constituents back home.
Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who is the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said that he would “stand by” Biden’s decision to not send fighter jets to Ukraine. Even still, when he was back in Chicago over the weekend, Durbin heard many of his constituents express concern over the lack of fighter jets provided to Ukraine.
“This is a dilemma. It’s a classic dilemma. We want to provide the equipment that Ukraine needs to survive. We don’t want to push Putin into World War III or a nuclear confrontation,” Durbin told CNN. “It is only the President who can make this decision, and he has urged caution. I can make arguments of one side or the other.”
A personal moment for many lawmakers
“As members of Congress, we’re the ones closest to the American people and we’re reflecting the broad public revulsion with Russia and broad public support for Ukraine,” said Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Floridian who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “People want to see us do more and they seem to understand that this is a good versus evil moment and a defense of democracy moment.”
The administration’s consideration of its options in aiding Ukraine has been both “active and cautious,” Murphy said, adding that the next round of discussions on military aid to Ukraine would need to be handled carefully.
“We’re getting to a phase where we’ve exhausted the easy answers,” she said. “The good thing is Zelensky is coming before Congress and asking for a lot of things — as he should.”
The Ukrainian leader’s speech will likely mean even more to some lawmakers who have forged personal relationships with Zelensky over the last few years. He has met personally with American lawmakers in the past, held calls with senators and spoke last week with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“I think the Congress generally appreciates the fact that three weeks into this assault by a much bigger country, he is still able to go somewhere and have a virtual meeting with the Congress of the United States,” said Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt.
CNN’s Manu Raju and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.