The strong hopes for bipartisan agreement on big issues that kicked off the start of the year is slowly fading for this Congress, one of the most polarized in history. But nothing unites lawmakers like a common enemy, and they've finally found one: Russia.
Eight senators from both parties are flying to Ukraine on Thursday to discuss the ongoing crisis with leaders of the country's interim government. The delegation is led by John McCain of Arizona, who is joined by fellow Republicans John Barrasso of Wyoming, Jeff Flake of Arizona, John Hoeven of North Dakota, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island are also going. All but Hoeven and Whitehouse are members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In a Thursday morning interview on CNN, Murphy said the senators were traveling to Eastern Europe to "show the Ukrainian government they have strong U.S. support in conjunction with our allies" against Russia. "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin marched on Crimea because he doesn't believe that the United States and Europe are going to stand together to exact consequences on the Russian economy," he told anchor Carol Costello. "I think we're going to prove him wrong."
The joint trip illustrates an unusual bipartisan streak that has emerged in the last few weeks, as Washington lawmakers come together in defense of Ukraine's sovereignty and condemnation of Russia's military intervention into Crimea. Not too long ago, the conflict in Syria had revealed deep divisions in Congress and within both parties.
The trip comes ahead of a Sunday vote by Crimea on a referendum to secede from Ukraine and become a part of Russia, a decision loudly denounced by the U.S. The delegation is scheduled to fly back home that morning.
But the senators are heading to Ukraine relatively empty-handed. While they seem to agree that Russia poses a real threat to both Ukraine and the U.S., they haven't yet found common ground on how to pressure Moscow to back off.
Several Senate Foreign Relations Committee Republicans joined the Democratic majority on Wednesday to approve legislation that would provide financial aid to Kiev, impose sanctions on Russians involved in the incursion, and reform parts of the International Monetary Fund. But House Republicans, including leadership, are ready to oppose the bill, saying language on IMF reforms and funding, which the Obama administration has been pushing, doesn't belong in an aid bill for Ukraine. The House has already passed a bill for $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine, without any provisions for sanctions of IMF reforms.
The Senate-proposed legislation is expected to pass the chamber, but a vote on the floor is looking highly unlikely Thursday night. That means Ukraine won't see any form of U.S. assistance for another week, since the House and Senate are in recess for the next week.
However, that won't stop McCain from personally doing some diplomatic maneuvering while he's in Ukraine this week. The senator told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that three Ukrainian leaders called him to request the visit, and he has close working relationships with some of them. McCain may have invited Democrats along, but by leading a separate charge, the lawmaker is circumventing White House policy. McCain has regularly criticized President Obama's interactions with his Russian counterpart since the crisis began, and it seems he's grown impatient. A February Wire headline from Abby Ohlheiser said it all: "John McCain Is Back-Seat Presidenting the Ukraine Crisis."
And McCain, along with his fellow travelers, has the public support to back up his tough-on-Putin stance. According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, almost two-thirds of Americans said they have a somewhat or very negative opinion of Putin. Additionally, 72 percent of Americans view Russia as an adversary rather than an ally, the highest level since the poll began asking the question in 1995. In other words, Americans felt better about Russia a few years after the end of the Cold War than they do now.
This weekend's congressional trip is more of the same when it comes to recent U.S. policy: talks, talks, and more talks. But the senators' involvement suggests that Congress is not willing to stop there.
This article appears in the March 14, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.