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Russia's war in Ukraine upends Democrats' gathering — and election-year agenda

Biden and fellow Democrats say they're making American working families a priority, but a bloody, televised crisis abroad continues to sap their time and political capital
Image: Peace activists protest against Russia's war in Ukraine during "Stand with Ukraine" rally outside the White House
A child holds a homemade sign during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine outside the White House on March 6, 2022. Sarah Silbiger / Reuters

PHILADELPHIA — House Democrats gathered here this week to revive their flagging domestic agenda. They held closed-door strategy sessions about how to talk to voters about rising inflation, tackle the climate crisis and move forward on immigration reform and voting rights.   

But Russia’s bloody, televised war in Ukraine — and the humanitarian disaster that has followed — overshadowed Democrats’ annual winter conference. And the burgeoning crisis is threatening to upend the party’s midterm agenda as President Joe Biden and the Democrats seek to defend razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate.

The raging war and Biden’s decision to ban all Russian oil imports have driven U.S. gas prices to record highs, leaving Democrats struggling to craft a response to voters paying more at the pump and to Republicans seizing it as a wedge issue to hammer opponents. 

Democrats have privately and publicly clashed with the Biden administration for killing a deal to have Poland transfer MiG fighter jets to help bolster Ukraine’s defenses.

And fresh from a trip to the Ukraine-Poland border, Rep. Greg Meeks, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., a doctor trained in disaster relief, both grew emotional describing thousands of tired and cold Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children, who they observed streaming into Poland.  

“Slava Ukraini,” proclaimed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to reporters on Friday, using a phrase that means “Glory to Ukraine.” “So much of what we talked about last night was about the Ukraine. So much of what we have been addressing has been about Ukraine.

“This is central to what we’re talking about here. People are dying.”

She noted that Congress this week passed a massive government funding package that included $13.6 billion in new military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. 

But pressed by NBC News about whether the Democrats’ election-year agenda was being upended by the Ukraine crisis, Pelosi responded that aiding American families remains the top priority of Biden and his party.

“So, no, we don’t stop what we need to do for America’s working families. We have to be strong, and as the president has clearly prioritized, we need to meet the needs of the American people. We have to save our own democracy, which is under assault in our country,” said Pelosi, flanked by her leadership team. “And at the same time, we can honor our responsibilities to peace in the world and helping all we can.”

The stark reality, however, is that Russia’s war, now in its third week, is sapping a lot of time, energy and political capital from Biden and congressional lawmakers, and further jeopardizing the party’s already slim chances to repackage pieces of its stalled Build Back Better plan and pass it through Congress.

Not only did they work furiously over the past several weeks to assemble and pass a bipartisan $13.6 billion emergency military and humanitarian aid package for Ukraine; Biden and lawmakers also have been working on a series of economic sanctions targeting Vladimir Putin, his oligarchs and Russian financial institutions.

Next week, the House and Senate, with backing from Biden, are expected to vote to revoke Russia’s “most favored nation” trade status — the latest escalation in what has become an all-out economic war with Putin. 

Closing out House Democrats’ gathering in Philadelphia, Biden told lawmakers Friday that he had just spent the better part of an hour on the phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and speaks with him nearly every day.

Biden thanked lawmakers for “showing a unified front to the world” by cracking down on Russian leaders and sending aid to Ukraine. But the president warned that, as commander in chief, he would not be sending U.S. troops or planes to Ukraine — an act he believed would ignite World War III.

“The idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews — just understand, don’t kid yourself. No matter what y’all say, that’s called World War III, OK?” Biden said. “Let’s get it straight here guys.”

The Biden administration this week killed a plan to transfer Poland's MiG 29 fighter jets to Ukraine, leaving some lawmakers surprised, frustrated and vowing to take matters into their own hands.

“I think there’s a broad agreement in the Democratic Caucus … that we should provide MiGs and provide support,” Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., a combat veteran, said in an interview.

“I just think that is a reflection of where the American people are and the pressure that we’re getting in our districts and in the country. The American people want us to help Ukraine survive and to do what’s necessary, short of going to war with Russia.”

So far, voters support Biden’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But Biden’s handling of the war has not given a bounce to his sagging favorability numbers. A Wall Street Journal survey out Friday showed that 57 percent of voters disapprove of Biden’s performance, while only 42 percent approve.   

Those numbers are likely driven by rising inflation and gas prices, which are hitting the pocketbooks of Americans even as the economy heats up and the unemployment rate falls. 

Here in the City of Brotherly Love, some Democrats made the difficult, unpopular election-year argument that Americans will need to “sacrifice” and pay more at the pump as Ukrainians and other Europeans make even greater sacrifices to stop Putin’s march.

“After going to Poland and talking to some of our allies, especially in the E.U. and NATO, they’re sacrificing greatly. You know, they’re doing things that no one thought that they would do,” Meeks, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, told reporters, noting that Germans will be paying more after they halted construction of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia.   

“Putin counted on us being divided. He counted on us not staying together. He counted on people [saying] ‘I’m not going to make that kind of sacrifice.’ So they’re doing it in Europe. And so yes, I’m asking the people of the United States to also make the sacrifice, because in the long run, democracy is at stake.”

But after more than two years of a deadly and exhausting global pandemic — of mask wearing, of working from home, of not being able see or visit loved ones — it’s unclear whether “more sacrifice” is a message that will resonate with voters eager to return to a sense of normalcy and struggling with their own financial problems.

Asked if he agreed with Meeks’ suggestion that Americans need to sacrifice at the gas pump, Ruiz, the son of farmworkers who went on to become an emergency room physician, paused for an uncomfortable 10 seconds and grew emotional as he collected his thoughts. 

At the Ukrainian border, “I saw women with young children fleeing for their lives. I saw disabled children in wheelchairs. I saw children with autism. I saw the love of that mother for their child … I saw the elderly, frail and old coming over scared in shock. I saw the tears of these relatives who I can only imagine were thinking of their husband or their elderly brother or child stay behind and possibly never see them again,” Ruiz told reporters. 

“All of us, every American, are seeing, whether you’re a CNN news viewer or MSNBC or Fox News, you’re seeing the horrors of bloody children on the sidewalk who had their suitcases with them, who were fleeing the country searching for peace and escaping. These are the consequences of war.” 

Ruiz, who has been commended for helping victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, said he and his family were willing to pay more.

“We have to ask ourselves: What is it we stand for as a democracy, to protect other democracies and protect us from autocracies? What is the price that we as individuals will want to contribute in solidarity with the Ukrainian people? I, for one, I’m going to pay that price. … If it means paying a few extra cents of the gas, then we’re willing to pay that.”