WASHINGTON — At first, the White House resisted calls from Congress to ban Russian oil imports to the U.S. And then, it did just that.
The administration hit the brakes on legislation that would have revoked Russia’s normal trade status, until President Joe Biden announced the move Friday. The administration persuaded senators to hold off on imposing Russian sanctions, then slapped stiff sanctions itself. It rejected efforts in Congress to stop the Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline, then led allies in halting it.
“What do all those things have in common?” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, asked after reciting a similar list.
“In each of those cases, the administration said no,” until lawmakers from both political parties put pressure on the White House to change course. “And in each case, the administration did a 180.”
It’s an emerging pattern that has not gone unnoticed during the escalating war in Ukraine: A remarkably unified Congress is out front on foreign policy, pressuring Biden to go further and faster with a U.S. response to a devastating conflict that has no clear endgame in sight.
Rather than running for political cover as the Ukraine war worsens, lawmakers of both parties are pushing the president to act more swiftly and forcefully to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. The result has been a rare, mostly unified resolve from the legislative branch, which is leaving an imprint on executive branch decision-making.
“We’ve seen that with this president time and time and time again, where he says, ‘We can’t do this,'” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a combat veteran. “Then he reverses course.”
Now, Ernst and other members of Congress are pushing the Biden administration to reconsider sending Polish warplanes that Ukrainian pilots could fly in their fight against the Russian attacks.
More than 40 Republican senators signed onto a letter imploring Biden to reverse course after the Pentagon rejected an offer from Poland to transfer the Soviet-era MiGs to Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksyy pleaded with Congress last weekend that if the U.S. was unwilling to impose a no-fly zone, it should at least send the planes and other air support.
“Send these MiGs,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.
The administration initially had indicated it supported NATO ally Poland sending its planes to Ukraine, but then slammed the door on Poland’s surprise offer to instead send the planes to a U.S. base in Germany for transfer to Ukraine. Military leaders deemed it too risky. They worried such a move would unduly provoke Putin, and argued that other weaponry may be more effective than the jets.
“There is bipartisan support to provide these planes,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H, during a Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday with administration officials. “It is disappointing to see the reluctance on the part of the administration, and it’s coming across as indecision and bickering.”
The steady drumbeat from Congress in recent weeks can be viewed as both a criticism of the White House response, but also an approving nod signaling to the Biden administration how far lawmakers are willing to go to support Ukraine.
Instead of a war-weary Congress, as might have been expected after the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, lawmakers appear determined to do as much as possible for Ukraine — short of involving U.S. troops on the ground or in the skies overhead.
Biden has made it clear there will be no direct U.S. confrontation with Russia. But the president acknowledged Friday that he has asked the Congress to hold off at times, particularly on the new trade status for Russia, “until I could line up all of our key allies to keep us in complete unison.”
Biden has been wary of having the U.S. front a response to Russia alone, and instead has assembled an impressive Western alliance, bolstering NATO and drawing in Asian countries with a common purpose unseen in a generation.
“Unity among our allies is critically important, as you all know, from my perspective, at least,” Biden said Friday.
Later, he told House Democrats at their annual retreat that he knows he has frustrated them at times over the response to Ukraine. But more important than moving quickly, he said, was keeping the allies together. He spoke in particular about the work he did on the Russian energy ban with the Europeans, who are more dependent on Russian oil. “It took a long time,” he explained.
He thanked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for holding off on the trade bill, and quipped, “I drove her crazy.”
Still, lawmakers from both parties are signaling they have the president’s back as the war in Ukraine intensifies.
Congress easily approved a $13.6 billion aid package for Ukraine this week that includes military and humanitarian support.
Pelosi indicated more funding would be necessary to rebuild the country after her own call this week with Zelenskyy.
For many lawmakers, the support for Ukraine goes beyond the blue-and-yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag they are wearing in their clothing choices or lapel pins.
Many felt they gave Zelenskyy their word last weekend when he issued a “desperate plea” for support, and they promised to do everything they can to help the young democracy in its fight for survival against Putin’s assault.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said it’s hard to imagine seeing reports of the attacks on Ukraine, including the devastating strike on a maternity hospital, and not ensure the U.S. is doing all it can.
“I think there actually is much more agreement on the need to let the MiGs go forward and provide lethal drones than may appear,” she said.