Pomp and persuasion as Ukraine’s Zelenskiy addresses US Congress
WASHINGTON — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will be greeted with pomp and applause when he enters the U.S. Capitol to address a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday, but it will be up to him to persuade lawmakers to keep funding his country’s defense against Russia.
Following a meeting at the White House with Democratic President Joe Biden, Zelenskiy’s speech will need to resonate with a bipartisan audience of senators and House Republicans, who have voiced increasing skepticism of continuing to spend tens of billions of dollars on Ukraine.
Zelenskiy will join a long list of world leaders to address joint meetings of the Senate and House of Representatives, a tradition that began in 1874 with a visit by Hawaiian King Kalakaua and included wartime visits by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Afghanistan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, as well as kings, queens and one pope.
It will also mark one of the last times Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, presides over the chamber as Speaker of the House, before Republicans take the majority on Jan. 3 and she returns to the rank and file of her caucus.
Zelenskiy’s message, said Raphael Cohen, a senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation, is likely to be that U.S. aid “is a remarkably good return on investments,” which he said “resonates with Americans.”
The planning for Zelenskiy’s speech began in October, according to a Pelosi aide, when she met with Ruslan Stefanchuk, chairman of Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. Pelosi was attending the First Parliamentary Summit of the International Crimea Platform in Zagreb, Croatia, at the time.
Exactly 300 days after Russian troops invaded and amid intensified rocket attacks that have left Ukrainian cities in ruins, Zelenskiy arrives knowing that the Senate and House control America’s purse strings.
His timing is well orchestrated, as Congress is on the verge of approving an additional $44.9 billion in new emergency military and economic assistance, on top of some $50 billion already sent to Ukraine.
First wartime trip abroad
Daniel Fried, former U.S. ambassador to Poland and a fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Zelenskiy’s trip demonstrates that he and Biden share a belief that the United States, despite its faults, is leader of the free world.
Zelenskiy, Fried said, “didn’t go to Berlin, Brussels, London or Paris” for his first trip abroad since the start of the war.
The 44-year-old Zelenskiy, a former comedian and actor, also will be visiting Washington on a day that the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed a new ambassador to Russia.
The optics of Zelenskiy receiving a hero’s welcome as a defender of democracy carries a message far deeper than military aid. It is meant to signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States and its NATO allies remain steadfastly behind Ukraine, despite recent signs of impatience among some Republican lawmakers over the rising cost.
When he enters through the House chamber’s double-wooden doors – which had to be barricaded against rioting supporters of then-President Donald Trump nearly two years ago – the cheers will be accented by some lawmakers wearing blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
Pelosi regularly wears a U.S. and Ukraine flag pin.
Many of the House’s 435 members and the Senate’s 100 were expected to attend.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer arrived on Wednesday sporting a yellow tie and blue suit. In a Senate speech he described Zelenskiy as “a leader who is fighting for his life, fighting for his country’s survival and fighting to preserve the very idea of democracy.”
For Zelenskiy, whose wartime olive fatigues have become globally recognized, it remains to be seen whether a House rule requiring men to wear a jacket and tie inside the chamber will need to be waived or just not enforced.
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