Nothing Unites Congress Like Vladimir Putin

In a surprising show of bipartisanship, a group of Republican and Democratic senators is headed to Ukraine this weekend.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. (left) and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
March 13, 2014, 12:35 p.m.

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.

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