WASHINGTON – Just two years ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was at the center of impeachment proceedings that deeply fractured Republicans and Democrats in Congress. On Wednesday, appealing to those same lawmakers for aid against a devastating Russian invasion, Zelenskyy not only brought them together — he brought them to their feet.
Lawmakers gave the actor-turned-president multiple standing ovations as he invoked the values of “democracy, independence, freedom” in an impassioned appeal for more American aid. Many quietly wiped away tears or shook their heads as Zelenskyy paused to show a graphic video of the carnage being inflicted upon his country.
It was a show of unity in Congress that would have been unthinkable even just a few weeks ago, and quickly sparked talk among lawmakers about finding new ways to help Ukraine withstand the Russian onslaught.
“Slava Ukraini!” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in her introduction of Zelenskyy, invoking the watchword of Ukrainians — "Glory to Ukraine."
The House and Senate watched Zelenskyy’s livestreamed address in an auditorium in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, which is situated between the two chambers. There was no left side for Democrats or right for Republicans. Members sat together, regardless of party. It was a stark change from the political climate even a month ago, before Russia invaded Ukraine, and from the partisan tensions that have only escalated since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
“It’s about time,” said Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of the bipartisanship that has bloomed around Ukraine. “In World War II, we came together. And this is very similar.”
Inside the room for Zelenskyy’s speech, McCaul said “a lot of the members, and many that you’d be surprised by, were in tears” as the Ukrainian president showed spliced images of his country before the war and after. “It looked like Nazi Germany to me."
Zelenskyy’s speech may not have changed lawmakers’ minds on his top request — the no-fly zone he wants to “close the sky” to Russian warplanes — but his address appeared to further harden the resolve of lawmakers looking for ways to help Ukraine without provoking a nuclear conflict with Russia.
A canny politician, Zelenskyy draped his speech in American patriotism by asking the lawmakers to “remember Pearl Harbor,” the U.S. naval base bombed in World War II, and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, two cataclysms that inspired a shared sense of national purpose.
“I think it helps unite us, and we all are hearing the same information, at the same time,” said Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., of the address. “I don’t think there’s a person in the room that did not have a tear in their eye. So I think this made us more determined to give them what they need.”
Standing alongside his GOP counterpart after the address, Meeks said he was not there “as a Democrat” and McCaul was “not here as a Republican. We’re here as Americans.”
Many lawmakers suggested that Congress should increase pressure on President Joe Biden to work with Poland to provide fighter jets to the Ukrainian military, while also supplying other equipment and weapons to help them secure their own skies.
New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a member of Democratic leadership, noted that while Zelenskyy pushed for a no-fly zone, he also suggested that "providing Ukraine with enhanced missile defense systems would also help stem the carnage that we are seeing. That’s an opening to find common ground.”
Reaction to the address wasn’t all bipartisan, as many Republicans criticized Biden as having been too slow to act.
“Our own president needs to step up his game," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "We’re not doing nearly enough, quickly enough.”
“Today’s speech was clearly intended for an audience sitting in the White House, and I hope they were listening,” said Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But the divisions were slight compared with the ones seen during former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial two years ago. Back then, Republicans stood firm behind Trump and acquitted him of abuse of power after he withheld military aid from Ukraine while pressing Zelenskyy to announce an investigation into Biden, his future political opponent, and his son, Hunter. Zelenskyy, newly elected as president and determined to preserve the American alliance, stayed quiet through the uproar.
Today, with the fate of Ukraine and its people in the balance, members from both parties acknowledged the wrenching choices ahead.
“It really is just a fundamental question of how much risk are we willing to take, that a cornered authoritarian with one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals will use it? It’s a relatively simple but very grave conversation,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.
Coons said he started receiving text messages from his constituents shortly after Zelenskyy's speech ended. In recent weeks, he said, “I don’t think I’ve gotten a single call or email that says, ‘stay out, it’s none of our business.’"
Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, retired from the Army National Guard, said lawmakers could easily see themselves in the same situation as the Ukrainians who are suddenly fleeing their country or defending it with their lives.
What she heard, Ernst said, "makes me want to throw on my uniform and go help.”
"What if this were my community? What if this were my people? How would I respond to that? I think that really gets at our hearts, too,” Ernst said.
“It was exactly the right kind of emotional appeal to the American people without trying to play to our politics,” said New Jersey Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat and former State Department official. “It was a unifying speech.”
Associated Press writers Farnoush Amiri, Kevin Freking, Alan Fram and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.