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United front in Congress on Ukraine, at least in Munich

Despite the raucous comments of some right-wing lawmakers, bipartisan members of Congress are in Germany to pledge to allies wholehearted support for Ukraine

From left, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) on Capitol Hill on Jan. 24. All three are in Munich for a security conference to present a bipartisan, united front in backing Ukraine. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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Although he has been in the Senate for more than 24 years, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has only participated in one official trip abroad. That was almost 13 years ago, when a congressional delegation traveled to China.

That changed this weekend when Schumer led one of a half dozen “CoDels,” as those on Capitol Hill call such trips, to the Munich Security Conference. He believes the annual meeting that assembles global allies and heads of state mandates his presence as part of a bipartisan effort to reassure U.S. support for defending Ukraine against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military invasion.

“This is a crucial moment and we have to show the Ukrainians that we have a united front, Democrats and Republicans — McConnell’s going — to help with Ukraine,” Schumer said in a brief interview before he left the Senate on Thursday. “That we’re not giving up, that we’re going to be there all the way and we need them to be there all the way.”

Indeed, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) led his own delegation of seven GOP senators there touting the same message: Archconservatives such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) are in a minority with their opposition to supporting Ukraine.

“What I’m going to underscore is that the national defense team of the previous administration, entirely behind the effort; the leadership of all the national security committees in the House and Senate, entirely behind the effort,” McConnell said in a brief interview before leaving the Capitol on Thursday, suggesting the media pays too much attention to the outlier views. “I think there’s been way too much attention given to a very few people who seem not to be invested in Ukraine’s success.”

All told, nearly 50 lawmakers from the House and Senate, split almost evenly among Democrats and Republicans, landed in Germany for the annual security conference. Like McConnell and Schumer, most lawmakers wanted to reassure Western allies that the new Republican-led House still largely supports President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.

The latest on the war in Ukraine

In speeches at the conference, and in comments in the days beforehand, their tone resembled the 2017 security conference, which took place less than a month after Donald Trump was sworn in as president promising an America-first agenda that didn’t appreciate traditional alliances such as NATO.

The late Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.), in his final CoDel to Munich, delivered a broadside attack on Trump’s worldview, saying it would have shocked the founders of that conference and left the future of NATO in doubt.

“They would be alarmed that more and more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent,” McCain said in 2017.

Trump would go on to issue statements supporting Putin’s denials over U.S. intelligence assessments about Russian meddling in the 2016 election; pressure Zelensky into finding damaging information on Biden’s Ukrainian dealings; and urge his supporters to attack the Capitol to try to overturn President Biden’s 2020 victory.

Now, as he mounts a third campaign for the presidency, Trump is attacking Democrats and Republicans alike who support the defense of Ukraine.

The list of anti-Ukraine Republican lawmakers is quickly growing

On Capitol Hill, his allies are small in number but they draw outsize attention. Many of them were the critical bloc of votes that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) needed to secure the gavel after a marathon round of voting early last month.

McCarthy has at times criticized Biden’s handling of the war effort, seeming to align with Greene, but then suggested he just wants to see a more transparent look at how the funds were being used.

Although McCarthy traveled to a Florida resort this weekend for a big Republican fundraising gala, his top lieutenants are in Munich, such as Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Trump allies believe that GOP leaders such as McConnell represent a vast majority inside the Capitol but are misreading how conservative voters do not support defending Ukraine.

“Yeah, they’re out of touch, but I also think that they’re not facing the hard, tough choices here that we can’t spend hundreds of billions of dollars in Ukraine, and ship Javelin stingers to Ukraine, and at the same time, say to the Taiwanese, ‘We’re going to help you do what you need to do to deter Chinese invasion.’ We just can’t do both those things,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said in an interview on Thursday in the Capitol.

When asked on Thursday if he would mention Trump by name at the conference, McConnell turned and walked away. The two haven’t spoken since December 2020 when McConnell told Trump he would recognize Biden’s victory in the presidential contest.

In Munich, McConnell never mentioned Trump and only referenced the “previous administration” to highlight how Trump’s former secretaries of State and Defense, Mike Pompeo and Mark T. Esper, support the Zelensky-led effort.

“I am a conservative Republican from America, and I come in peace! Reports about the death of Republican support for strong American leadership in the world have been greatly exaggerated,” McConnell told conference attendees on Friday.

Schumer noted how strange things had become in politics because, 20 years ago in his first Senate term, the most conservative voices used to be those pushing for the most aggressive foreign policy.

“The hard right used to be the biggest people against Putin and communism and now they embrace him. And I think that’s part of the pernicious influence of Trump. But McConnell, to his credit, has been steadfast, and he’s been great. And the majority of his caucus has been great,” he said Thursday before leading his nine-senator delegation to Munich.

Who is the most important person who regularly monitors those anti-Ukraine voices in Congress? Zelensky.

“He watches us like a hawk. Everything we do here resonates one way or the other. Every time there’s an outlier voice about cutting off assistance to the war, the Russians pick it up and it’s on RT television,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said of the Russian TV station. “But, every time we act legislatively, the Ukrainians are emboldened.”

Graham, along with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), led a 14-senator group to Munich that officially goes by the moniker of “CODEL McCain,” as an homage to their former colleague.

McCain’s spirit looms over the event 4½ years after his death. He remains a powerful figure whose worldview is considered sacrosanct there. His wife, Cindy McCain, Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations’ agencies mission in Rome, attended an award dinner on Friday named for her husband, in which Schumer gave the major speech and pledged total loyalty to Europe.

“Like John McCain, we must press ahead with courage, with conviction in our common values, and ready to work together as friends in this great endeavor,” Schumer said in Munich. “We promise to always stand alongside you every step of the way.”

But conservative voters are starting to drift toward Trump’s views, weary after $113 billion in funds approved by Congress.

Just 39 percent of Republicans support continued arms shipments to Ukraine, according to an Associated Press poll, compared with 63 percent of Democrats. Overall, 48 percent of voters support continuing to arm the Ukrainian military, down from 60 percent in May.

When the war started last February, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) was the only Republican voting against the first legislation, and by May, 55 other Republicans joined him in voting against a bill to further arm Ukraine.

“I care about our country, United States of America and our people. That’s it,” Greene said in an interview last May, explaining her opposition.

Graham and Whitehouse, at a news conference previewing their trip to Munich, said “CODEL McCain” members attending this year were ready for this clash of ideas for years to come.

“Isolationism is not a new concept,” Graham said Thursday. “Some of these people think, hey, they discovered a new way of looking at the world. Isolationism has been with us for a long time.”

“I think that there’s a rather eccentric set of voices,” Whitehouse said, “that are being given more attention than they deserve.”