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2024 Munich Security Conference

Lawmakers head to Munich facing questions on Ukraine, Trump, NATO

MUNICH — The annual Munich Security Conference kicks off today with Western leaders warning that the post-World War II world order is at grave risk of destabilizing.

The war in Ukraine is at an inflection point, and there are real concerns about the durability of the Western coalition backing Kyiv, especially the United States’ role. Former President Donald Trump is threatening to abandon U.S. treaty commitments to NATO if member nations don’t pay up. And violence in the Middle East is escalating as Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza grinds on.

“You could argue this is the most dangerous time for our country and for the democratic world,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told us in an interview this week.

Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are all scheduled to make appearances in Munich.

But foreign leaders will be turning their attention chiefly to the nearly four dozen members of Congress who will be spending Presidents Day weekend here. They’re looking for assurances that Congress will be able to send a Ukraine aid package to President Joe Biden’s desk.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who chair the Senate NATO Observer Group, told us their goal here is to reaffirm Congress’ commitment to both Ukraine and NATO.

“I don’t try to explain [Trump’s comments], and most of my counterparts in Europe lived through four years of Donald Trump, too,” Shaheen said. “So they know that that’s not a position that I share or support, and that most members of Congress don’t share.”

Tillis, who has been actively pushing back against anti-Ukraine Republicans, said he’ll “remind everybody that we have three co-equal branches of government, and our commitment to NATO runs through Congress as much as it runs through the White House.”

Yet Tillis also noted that lawmakers from both parties share Trump’s underlying frustration that so many NATO members still aren’t spending the minimum 2% of GDP on defense.

The Ukraine factor: Giving assurances about U.S. support for Ukraine will be difficult, to say the least.

The conference is convening just days after the Senate, on a 70-29 vote, passed a massive aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, including bolstered defenses for the Middle East.

However, Speaker Mike Johnson has effectively declared the Senate bill dead on arrival. Johnson — faced with growing opposition to Ukraine aid inside the House GOP Conference — said he has no plans to act on the issue any time soon.

Still, there are plenty of defense hawks in the House Republican Conference who want to see Ukraine aid pushed through, despite the complications presented by election-year politics.

Some of them, including House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner (R-Ohio), will appear here. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who has vowed to use “every available legislative tool” to get the Senate package to Biden’s desk, is the highest-ranking Democrat in the delegation.

Separately, Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) will be leading what’s dubbed the “CODEL McCain,” named after the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who brought a group of senators here every year.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Sen. Jim Risch (Idaho), the panel’s top Republican, will also attend, along with Majority Whip Dick Durbin and Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.).

A wild card: Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) will be among those joining the Sullivan-Whitehouse CODEL, and he’s scheduled to have a speaking engagement on Sunday.

Vance isn’t your typical lawmaker who attends these sorts of gatherings, given his closeness to Trump and his strong opposition to Ukraine aid. Vance will be walking into the lion’s den here, and he knows it.

Next stops: Several lawmakers are continuing on to other countries after the Munich conference. Some are going to the Middle East, while others are staying in Europe.

Shaheen and Tillis are leading a separate group to Hungary on Sunday, where they’ll press that country’s leaders to approve Sweden’s accession to NATO. Shaheen told us that Hungary hasn’t “always acted in good faith with respect to the activities of both the EU and NATO.” And senators have raised concerns recently about democratic backsliding in Hungary.

— Andrew Desiderio

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