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The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Congress comes off the sidelines on Ukraine. Will it stay on the field?

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

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Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. Olivier is off this week, but we have a group of stellar guest authors lined up for you. First up? Ace congressional reporter Mike DeBonis.

The big idea

What more will Congress be able to do on Ukraine?

Just hours before leaving for a two-week recess Thursday, the Senate made what, on its face, looked like a stunning display of unity and resolve against Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

On rare 100-to-0 roll call votes, the Senate passed measures sending U.S. imports of Russian energy, cracking down on trade with Russia and Belarus, and permanently reauthorizing human rights sanctions authority named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Putin critic who died in regime custody. The House quickly passed the bills, and President Biden signed them both Friday.

But consider the context.

Six weeks had already passed after Russia began its assault. The legislation was in limbo for weeks as lawmakers bickered about details, with the impasse breaking only after fresh reports of Russian atrocities against Ukrainian civilians. And the practical impact of the bills is negligible: Biden had already issued executive orders cracking down on Russian energy and trade.

So the reaction on Capitol Hill ran more toward relief than triumph. 

  • "We dither sometimes," Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, told me. "And I'm not sure that what we ended up agreeing to couldn't have been agreed a couple of weeks ago."

As I wrote earlier this month, the whole episode has raised serious questions about whether the modern Congress is simply too polarized and sclerotic to play a leading role in foreign affairs.

But the whole tale is yet to be told. 

A protracted conflict

Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee last week that the Ukraine conflict would be "measured in years." And that assessment, which echoed lawmakers' private intelligence briefings, has pricked the ears of Menendez and other lawmakers who see plenty of opportunity for Congress to make its mark.

A Senate bill from Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) to streamline U.S. arms transfers to Ukraine in the style of the World War II lend-lease program is now in the House. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wants to unwind tax breaks for companies doing business in Russia. Other lawmakers are looking to freeze Russia's gold reserves, make it harder for oligarchs to shelter assets abroad, backfill weapons that other NATO allies have provided to Ukraine and more.

But, as the past few weeks have proved, nothing on Capitol Hill is simple. A bipartisan bill that would allow the U.S. government to sell seized Russian assets and use the proceeds to benefit Ukraine, my colleague Jeff Stein reports, has floundered because of objections from the American Civil Liberties Union. The Magnitsky reauthorization passed only after its sponsors agreed to change language that some social conservatives believed could lead to an American crackdown on antiabortion and anti-gay-rights leaders abroad. And dozens of other bills have simply withered on the vine as the Senate has tackled other matters, including a Supreme Court nomination.

Some senators, particularly Republicans, have concluded that their most valuable role is to push Biden — not pass bills. When I asked Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), the top Republican on Foreign Relations, about his legislative priorities, he talked about the "need to keep the pressure on."

"I think probably what all of us are doing is urging the administration and members of the administration to get some urgency," he said.

Money, money, money

There is one big thing that can spur Congress to action — money — and Milley's warning has members starting to think about more funding.

The big exception to congressional inaction on Ukraine was the $13.6 billion aid package that was included in the massive omnibus spending bill last month. Already, lawmakers are starting to want more missiles, more ammo, more anything. "If it shoots, we should ship it," Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has taken to saying.

But it's not just military aid, either. Menendez and several other senators told me last week they are focused intently on a potential global food crisis not only in Ukraine, but in scores of countries that depend on Russian and Ukrainian agriculture to feed their citizens. Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) told me he plans to call an appropriations hearing with U.S. and United Nations officials to discuss confronting the crisis.

  • "I expect that we'll be — by the end of this month, maybe early next month — talking about the combination of additional military assistance to the Ukrainian armed forces and our eastern-flank NATO allies and humanitarian assistance, both hunger and refugee and covid relief," Coons said.

His mention of covid relief was not offhand — and it could be the crucial factor. Right now, a $10 billion covid aid package is stuck in the Senate because of immigration politics, and Democrats are frustrated that $5 billion in planned global covid relief was cast aside in negotiations with Republicans.

Could the overwhelming bipartisan support for Ukraine be enough to unstick things? It can be hard to see anything sweeping away border politics in an election year, but last week’s action showed what is possible, said Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), who played a leading role in clearing roadblocks.

“It shows that there is absolutely solid bipartisan support for Ukraine, but it also shows that if you work through these issues that you can find yes-yes solutions,” he said.

What’s happening now

Ashish Jha takes over as Biden’s new coronavirus czar

Ashish Jha, who took over Monday as President Biden’s coronavirus czar, made his presence felt immediately. He started the job with a round of morning TV shows,” John Wagner and Mariana Alfaro report for Post Politics Now.

Our colleague Dan Diamond has the full story on Jha: He’s a pandemic pundit on TV. Now he’s Biden’s new coronavirus czar.

Elon Musk reverses decision to join Twitter’s board, CEO says

“Elon Musk decided not to join Twitter Inc.’s board of directors, Chief Executive Parag Agrawal said, a dramatic reversal that cast new uncertainty over the relationship between the social-media platform and its largest shareholder,” the Wall Street Journal's Salvador Rodriguez and Ginger Adams Otis report.

Austrian chancellor to tell Putin that Russia has ‘lost’ in Ukraine

“Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer is set to speak face-to-face with Vladimir Putin on Monday, in the Russian president’s first meeting with a Western leader since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in February. Austria’s foreign minister defended the sit-down as a chance to send ‘a very clear political message’ to Putin ‘that he is isolating Russia’ and ‘has lost’ already on moral terms," Annabelle Timsit, Bryan Pietsch, Miriam Berger, Jennifer Hassan and Julian Duplain report.

More key updates:

Follow our live coverage of the war here

Lunchtime reads from The Post

Andrew Giuliani is test-driving his father’s legacy in New York

“Political dynasties are a well-worn American tradition. The Adamses, Roosevelts, Kennedys and Bushes are among the clans that have spawned second generations of torchbearers and wannabes. What makes Andrew Giuliani’s quest distinct is that he started his political career at a moment when his father’s reputation has never been more damaged,” Paul Schwartzman reports.

“Yet, in certain sections of New York — conservative White enclaves in the city, suburbs and beyond — the Giuliani brand is still strong. And while some Republicans running statewide in Blue America might want to avoid touting their ties to Trump and Rudy, Andrew Giuliani celebrates them at every turn.

Higher interest rates could blunt two big problems in the economy

“There are two troubling forces threatening the economy right now, both consequences of the covid pandemic. Prices are surging to levels not seen in 40 years. And turmoil in the labor market continues to pinch businesses — there just aren’t enough people filling open jobs,” Rachel Siegel reports.

“In recent weeks, policymakers at the Federal Reserve have outlined a fix they say can help address both problems plaguing the economy. In public remarks, Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell and his colleagues argued that a steady series of seven rate hikes this year can not only bring down soaring inflation, but can also help reset the job market by cooling off demand for labor.

… and beyond

‘This was Trump pulling a Putin’

“Amid the current crisis, Fiona Hill and other former advisers are connecting President Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine to Jan. 6. And they’re ready to talk,” Robert Draper reports for the New York Times Magazine.

“Her assessment of the former president has new resonance in the current moment: ‘In the course of his presidency, indeed, Trump would come more to resemble Putin in political practice and predilection than he resembled any of his recent American presidential predecessors.’ ”

Stung by redistricting rulings, Republicans target state court elections

“Republicans are vowing to spend record amounts in key state supreme court races this fall, seeking to take advantage of a favorable national political environment to elect conservative judges at the state level amid deep political divisions,” Reuters's Joseph Ax and Jarrett Renshaw report.

The latest on covid

The next leap in coronavirus vaccine development could be a nasal spray

“A switch in the vaccine delivery route from a shot to a sniff could muster a wall of immunity right where viruses find their foothold and block the spread of the virus, preventing even mild infections,” Carolyn Y. Johnson reports.

The Biden agenda

Biden to nominate Dettelbach to head ATF, crack down on ‘ghost guns’

“President Biden will announce Monday that he is nominating Steve Dettelbach to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, part of a litany of law-enforcement-related actions by the administration as Democrats try to convince voters that they are the party that can keep America safe,” Cleve R. Wootson Jr. reports.

More on thatMerrick Garland for USA Today opinion: Ghost guns are real guns. And we'll regulate them to save lives.

Democrats search for midterm vote strategy as Biden poll numbers lag

“The White House has long banked on the political benefits of taming Covid-19 and overseeing strong job recovery, but as midterm campaigning accelerates, President Biden has been unable to shake low approval ratings as voters remain focused on higher prices for gasoline and groceries,the WSJ’s Catherine Lucey and Alex Leary report.

“Increasingly, polls show, Mr. Biden isn’t giving a boost to Democrats as they face an already-tough election climate."

The new White House rule: We don’t talk about Manchin

“The administration-wide gag order imposed over the last several weeks is a marked shift from earlier efforts to hype Biden’s expansive policy vision — and a tacit acknowledgment that the White House has learned its lesson,” Politico’s Adam Cancryn and Eugene Daniels report.

With covid mission over, Pentagon plans for next pandemic

“Now, the U.S. military mission is to use the experiences of [Lt. Col. Suzanne Cobleigh’s] team and other units pressed into service against the coronavirus pandemic to prepare for the next crisis threatening a large population, whatever its nature,” the Associated Press’s Lolita C. Baldor reports.

Alabama’s congressional districts, visualized

Alabama's lone majority-Black congressional district is at the center of a case before the Supreme Court this fall. The case could determine the future of racial gerrymandering, but voting rights advocates fear it also could backfire and weaken their protections, our colleague Colby Itkowitz reports.

Hot on the left

Rolling Stone says Joe Manchin knifed Democrats — and bailed on saving democracy

“By early January, Manchin had given the impression — at least according to his colleagues — that he was ready to amend the filibuster in a way that would open a path to passing voting rights,” Andy Kroll writes for the magazine.

The blame game: “Rolling Stone interviewed more than 30 key figures inside and outside of Congress to understand how the most ambitious voting-rights bill in generations and the Democratic Party’s main policy response to the Jan. 6 insurrection ended in failure. The blame for this defeat, sources say, lies with multiple parties: Manchin either strung along his party for months with no intention of actually supporting the reforms or gave indications to his colleagues that he was on board only to reverse his position on multiple occasions. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, miscalculated that if they could flip Manchin, another swing vote, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, would follow his lead.”

Meanwhile: “When Biden, who had vowed to run an ‘FDR-sized presidency,’ did inject himself into the negotiations late in the fight, his contributions did more harm than good.”

Hot on the right

How Ginni Thomas jockeyed for influence in Trump's orbit

Thomas “used her face time with Trump to cajole him about her floundering efforts to install friends and allies into plum administration positions, two former senior White House officials told CNN, one of whom said Trump encouraged her to get in touch with his staff about the matter,” CNN's Marshall Cohen, Pamela Brown and Gabby Orr report.

Sources said Ginni Thomas leveraged existing connections to conservative figures and sought inroads with Trump staffers, to become a recurring presence at his White House. She became part of a larger group of Republican activists who met in the White House on a near-monthly basis, though not with Trump, a source told CNN. Along the way, sources said she became a persistent nuisance to some of the Trump aides tasked with managing her entreaties.”

Today in Washington

At 2:15 p.m., Biden, Vice President Harris and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco will speak in the Rose Garden about gun crime.

In closing

Did you catch the Bacon Brothers at Dacha yesterday?

“If you happened to be at Dacha Beer Garden in Navy Yard just as the Nats were beating the Mets on a bright, blustery Sunday afternoon, your degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon would have decreased to one. (It is a hard-and-fast rule of journalism that all leads about Bacon reference the degrees of separation. We don’t make the rules; we just follow them.)" Travis Andrews has the scoop.

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.