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Munich Security Conference

Congress takes a beating in Munich

MUNICH — One could understand why foreign leaders are confused — even frustrated — with the United States.

At last year’s NATO summit, President Joe Biden proudly declared that U.S. support for Ukraine would never waver.

But consider what’s happened since then.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell failed several times to steamroll his party’s Donald Trump-aligned wing on new Ukraine aid before finally succeeding last week. Conservative House Republicans overthrew the speaker, leaving the chamber an ungovernable mess. Trump’s stranglehold on the GOP, combined with election-year politics and a general wariness of further entanglement in foreign conflicts, makes support for Ukraine a tough sell among Republicans. There remains no easy path for Ukraine funding in the House.

That reality came into greater focus during the annual Munich Security Conference, when two pieces of disconcerting news broke within hours of each other: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny died in captivity, and the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka fell to Russian forces.

Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), a close Biden ally, told us he sees why his foreign counterparts might bemoan “the gap — both in time and in other ways — between the commitments that President Biden made a long time ago versus where we are now after months and months of congressional inaction.”

In some ways, Biden made a promise he couldn’t guarantee. And foreign leaders told U.S. lawmakers here that their long-held fallback position when it comes to congressional dysfunction — “they’ll get it done in the end, they always do” — may no longer be operative.

“We’re scaring the daylights out of them,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said in an interview here. “There’s the very immediate question of re-supply of Ukraine… and then there’s the broader question of the reliability of our commitment to NATO.”

News here … Inside the meetings: In private, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told lawmakers that their “lack of a decision” is having an impact on the battlefield. Indeed, Ukrainian troops are being forced to ration ammo. And Congress isn’t giving U.S. allies any reason to be optimistic.

“It wasn’t that long ago that all of us were here saying, ‘No, no. Don’t worry. We’ve got it.’ And then milestones get missed… and they see the debate. They see the erosion on the Republican side,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) told us. “They can see what we can see.”

Still, nearly all of the 23 lawmakers we interviewed here said they needed to project some semblance of optimism and reassure their allies.

“At times we have much slower progress than people would like to see. But we’ll get there,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told us. “I think our European allies need to hear that.”

Border politics: Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.), who voted against the Senate foreign aid bill because there wasn’t a border security fix, tried to embrace a similar message. Ricketts was booed during a panel when he said the U.S.-Mexico border crisis is a “pressing issue for our country,” and seemed to compare it to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine before adding, “Not quite the same thing.”

“We all have to have a little grace, we’re all democracies,” Ricketts said of that interaction. “Getting our populations to where we need to be is a matter of time. Process matters.”

This message no longer seems to be working with the European Union, which just approved a €50 billion economic aid package for Ukraine. Some GOP supporters of the Senate bill, like Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), tried explaining the border dynamic to other foreign leaders but lamented that “they don’t see the connection.”

The desperation U.S. allies were quite openly exuding in Munich even came in the form of questions about the minutiae of congressional procedure. As we wrote on Friday, multiple lawmakers said that foreign leaders asked them how a discharge petition works.

“I’ve heard more about a discharge petition in the last two days from foreign leaders — at the highest levels — than in my prior eleven years in office combined,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries told us.

One notable exception to the hair-on-fire panicking, at least in private, was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Lawmakers who met with Zelensky told us he was surprisingly upbeat and measured. House and Senate Republicans who attended assured him that an aid package would pass.

News: Here’s the “Dear Colleague” letter that Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Jared Golden (D-Maine) and eight other members are sending today on their bipartisan foreign aid and border security proposal. It’s their response to the Senate’s $95 billion plan and is designed to overcome opposition to Ukraine aid from House GOP leaders.

“The Senate has now put forth two bipartisan proposals. The House has not put any forward until this,” Fitzpatrick, who’s heading to Ukraine this week, told us in Munich. “The only thing that’s not acceptable is to say something’s dead on arrival and not offer an alternative.”

— Andrew Desiderio

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