White House faces mounting impatience on Capitol Hill as calls to help Ukraine grow louder ahead of Zelensky’s speech

Zelensky is set to deliver a rare wartime speech to Congress in the morning, less than two weeks after the Ukrainian leader held a virtual meeting with US lawmakers. He is expected to use Wednesday’s speech – as he has in speeches to other friendly governments – to again make an impassioned plea to the United States for more help, including for certain types of military assistance that the Biden administration has already announced. vs.

Lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides told CNN they expect the next big round of deliberations in Washington on how best to help Ukraine fight Russia will depend largely on what what exactly is Zelensky asking when he addresses Congress. The speech comes as some on Capitol Hill are losing patience with the administration’s pace and its reluctance – for now – to go as far as Zelensky wanted in providing fighter jets and enforcing a zone of air exclusion over the country. Both of these things will likely be among the Ukrainian leader’s demands in his speech on Wednesday, but the administration brushed them aside for fear of how Putin would interpret the measures.

Biden is expected to announce an additional $800 million in security assistance, an official said, bringing the total to $1 billion announced last week and $2 billion since the start of the Biden administration.

The president will unveil the new military assistance package, including anti-tank missiles, as soon as Wednesday after Zelensky’s speech, according to officials familiar with the plans. The new assistance will stop before the no-fly zone where fighter jets, according to Zelensky, are needed to support Ukraine’s fight against Russia. But the new aid will include more defensive weapons than the United States has already provided, including javelins and Stingers. The Wall Street Journal first reported the planned aid announcement.

While the US government has largely responded to the war with bipartisan support for Ukraine, patience is starting to wear thin for some lawmakers, including senior Republicans who have been hesitant until now to criticize the government’s response. ‘administration. Biden and his administration have not reacted as quickly as some in Congress would like, as the president aims to keep American allies united in their response to the crisis.

“Everything Congress asked to do, (the administration) initially said no. And later they say yes after our allies did it,” said Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It’s slow. It’s excruciating.”

“We’re going to hear from Zelensky. So I think depending on what we hear then, and depending on the next action from the White House, we’ll see,” said Democratic Representative Josh Gottheimer, who is the one of many lawmakers who have advocated sending fighter jets and other military gear to Ukrainian forces. “In areas where we think we need to push harder — and where we’re hearing from home that we need to push harder — we’re going to voice that at the White House.”

A House member’s chief of staff put it bluntly when asked which issue his boss was likely to publicly push for next: “A lot of it will be determined by (Zelensky’s) speech in Congress. “, they said.

Ukraine’s president will take center stage virtually at the Capitol

Members said they don’t expect Zelensky to mince words when it comes to the help his country needs.

“I suspect he’ll appreciate what we’ve done,” Republican Senator from Ohio Rob Portman said, predicting what he expects from Zelensky’s speech: “He’ll also be very direct about what they need now. and that this is a moment of truth.”

On Capitol Hill, pressure to do more to help Ukraine’s allies has intensified in recent weeks, with Republicans and Democrats mounting calls for the administration to facilitate the transfer of planes from Poland to Ukraine, so to cut off Russian energy imports to the United States. and suppress normalized trade relations with Russia. On the last two issues, the White House acted last week when there was already significant momentum on the Hill.

A White House official at the time said he would reject any suggestion that congressional pressure had pushed the White House into action, and the officials pointed out that the administration’s decision-making process on the assistance to Ukraine had given priority to consultations with its European allies.

Whether to send Soviet-era fighter jets to Ukraine — and how — has emerged as a particularly vexing debate. In what the White House would later call a “temporary communications breakdown” last week, the Polish government offered to send jet planes to a US Air Force base in Germany, and that those planes would then be transported to Ukraine – only to have this idea quickly dismissed by US officials. The logistical challenges — as well as the risk of a direct confrontation between the United States and Russia — were too great, the administration warned.

But in the days since that rejection, Democratic and Republican lawmakers have only intensified calls for the administration to provide Ukraine with such fighter jets, along with other military tools. such as air defense systems.

Another demand Zelensky could make to lawmakers again on Wednesday: the creation of a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which the Biden administration has repeatedly and emphatically spoken out against.

Capitol Hill lawmakers, including some of its most hawkish members, largely agree, though Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia recently said he wouldn’t want to take the option off the table.

The White House faces difficult next steps

Hours after Zelensky addresses Congress, Biden is expected to deliver his own speech detailing US aid to Ukraine. The two presidents have spoken regularly in recent weeks, and White House officials have been in daily contact with Zelensky’s staff, a level of coordination that leads the White House to believe they won’t be surprised by anything from the speech. Ukrainian president on Wednesday.

During Tuesday’s White House press conference, Psaki credited Zelensky’s “passion”, “courage” and “bravery” for helping to expedite a “historic amount of military and security assistance and ‘weapons’ to Ukraine and acknowledged the calls for a series of additional actions coming from Congress.

“Yes, we recognize that there is a range of bipartisan calls,” Psaki said. “But what we have a responsibility to do here is assess the impact on the United States and our own national security.”

Lawmakers say that when they ask the White House to weigh some options when it comes to helping Ukraine, they are channeling things they have heard from constituents back home.

Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who is the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said he would “stand by” Biden’s decision not to send fighter jets to Ukraine. Even when he was back in Chicago this weekend, Durbin heard many of his constituents worry about the lack of fighter jets being supplied to Ukraine.

“It’s a dilemma. It’s a classic dilemma. We want to provide the equipment Ukraine needs to survive. We don’t want to push Putin into World War III or a nuclear confrontation,” Durbin said. at CNN. “Only the president can make that decision, and he urged caution. I can make arguments on either side.”

A recent poll showed that Americans overwhelmingly favor increased economic sanctions against Russia and broadly support new measures to stop Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, although most oppose direct military action. the United States.

A personal moment for many lawmakers

On Tuesday, Biden signed into law a $1.5 trillion government funding bill that included $13.6 billion in aid to Ukraine. And while Congress passed a massive $13 billion aid package for Ukraine last week, there are still more laws to tackle on Capitol Hill. The Senate has yet to consider a House-passed bill banning energy imports from Russia, and negotiations continue on how best to limit normalized trade relations with Russia.

“As members of Congress, we are closest to the American people and we reflect the broad public distaste for Russia and the broad public support for Ukraine,” said Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Floridian member. of the House Armed Services Committee. “People want to see us do more and they seem to understand that this is a moment of good versus evil and a moment of standing up for democracy.”

The administration’s review of its Ukraine aid options has been both “active and cautious,” Murphy said, adding that the next round of talks on military aid to Ukraine should be carefully managed.

“We’re getting to a phase where we’ve exhausted the easy answers,” she said. “The good thing is that Zelensky comes before Congress and asks a lot of things – as it should.”

The Ukrainian leader’s speech will likely mean even more to some lawmakers who have forged personal relationships with Zelensky over the past few years. He has personally met with U.S. lawmakers in the past, held calls with senators and spoke last week with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“I think Congress generally appreciates the fact that three weeks into this onslaught by a much larger country, they’re still able to go somewhere and have a virtual meeting with the United States Congress. “, said Republican Senator from Missouri Roy Blunt.

This story was updated with additional reports on Tuesday.

CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, Manu Raju and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.

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