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Biden speech brings brief moment of unity to the Capitol

After bipartisan cheers for Ukraine, Republicans were quick to find fault with Biden.
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WASHINGTON — It didn’t last long, but there was a fleeting moment of bipartisan unity in the Capitol on Tuesday night as President Joe Biden used his inaugural State of the Union address to excoriate Russian President Vladimir Putin and rally the nation in support for war-torn Ukraine.

Awash in blue and gold scarves, dresses, ribbons and ties — a nod to the colors of Ukraine’s national flag — Democrats and Republicans lawmakers pressed pause on their usual partisan warfare and briefly came together to show solidarity with a European ally facing unfathomable death and destruction at the hands of Putin.

“Putin’s latest attack on Ukraine was premeditated and unprovoked. He rejected repeated efforts at diplomacy. He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. And he thought he could divide us at home,” Biden told lawmakers. “Putin was wrong. We were ready.

“Putin may circle Kyiv with tanks, but he will never gain the hearts and souls of the Ukrainian people,” the president continued. “He will never extinguish their love of freedom. He will never weaken the resolve of the free world.” 

Symbols of America’s support for Ukraine were everywhere. Ukrainian flags were hung along Pennsylvania Avenue as Biden’s motorcade made the short drive from the White House to Capitol Hill. As she entered the House chamber, first lady Jill Biden warmly embraced Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, who later got a standing ovation from lawmakers.

And Rep. Victoria Spartz, R-Ind., the first Ukrainian-born member of Congress, was selected to help escort Biden into the room and sat directly behind the top two House GOP leaders, Kevin McCarthy of California and Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Earlier Tuesday, Spartz, who has spoken recently with her 95-year-old grandmother and other relatives in Ukraine, called the deadly invasion “a genocide of the Ukrainian people by a crazy man.”

“It was great to see that we can come on several issues together, but we also have to do the work. And this is very urgent work — not just do the talk. We have to have actions, because a lot of people are going to die,” Spartz, donning a blue blazer and yellow dress, said after Biden’s speech. 

“We must come together,” she said, “but leadership comes from the top, and the president has a responsibility to get us together ... and I haven’t seen that.”

Other Republicans thought Biden struck the right tone on Ukraine but also blamed his foreign policies, including his botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, for indirectly causing the current conflict.

“There’s universal agreement on both sides of the aisle that we need to stand with the people of Ukraine. It’s an atrocity. ... I think we’re all united on that front,” Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La, a member of the GOP leadership team, said in an interview. But he added: “The president has projected weakness on the world stage, and we all know that weakness invites aggression. It empowers terrorists and tyrants and dictators like Putin.” 

Biden did announce several steps his administration is taking on Ukraine that garnered bipartisan cheers. He has said he’s closing U.S. airspace to all Russian flights. And he said he’s teaming up with 30 countries to release 60 million barrels of oil from reserves around the world, a move to cut dependence on Russian oil.

“When the history of this era is written, Putin’s war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger,” Biden said in his address.

As Biden looked out on a sea of blue and yellow, there was Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who during the 2012 presidential campaign against the Obama-Biden ticket was mocked by Democrats for saying Russia was America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.”

Romney was sitting on the GOP side of the aisle with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has single-handedly stalled Biden’s $2 trillion climate and social spending package, known as “Build Back Better,” which the president didn’t mention by name in his 62-minute speech.

They sat together “as a show of solidarity between the two parties, bipartisanship,” Romney said. “We worked together extensively over the last couple of years and plan on keeping it up.”

Other lawmakers were in no mood for bipartisan bonhomie. Two conservative bomb-throwers — Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Lauren Boebert, R-Colo. — repeatedly heckled Biden throughout the night about Covid restrictions to building a border wall.

Greene came under fire this week after she took the stage at a white nationalist conference right after the organizer made antisemitic remarks and praised Putin.

Biden’s Cabinet was in attendance — everyone except Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who was the “designated survivor” of the night, which took on added significance amid Putin’s nuclear provocations in recent days.

Behind Biden sat Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who led the 2019 impeachment of President Donald Trump over allegations he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate the son of his political opponent, a Democrat named Joe Biden.

Like nearly everyone else in the House chamber, the nation’s two most powerful women were maskless, a signal to Americans that after two years of a pandemic things were slowly returning to normal.     

With Covid case numbers plummeting and American fatigue with the pandemic at a high, mask restrictions were lifted in the Capitol just in time for Biden’s address. 

“I know you’re tired, frustrated and exhausted,” Biden said. “But I also know this: Because of the progress we’ve made, because of your resilience and the tools we have, tonight I can say we are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines.”