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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Northwest lawmakers applaud Ukraine’s Zelenskyy in historic address to Congress

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks Wednesday as he meets with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C.  (New York Times)

WASHINGTON – In a historic address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, exactly 300 days after Russia invaded his country, Ukraine’s president thanked U.S. lawmakers for their support and urged them to continue the humanitarian and military aid that has bolstered his country’s defense.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s surprise visit, his first known trip outside his country since the war began, came as Congress finalized a $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill that includes nearly $45 billion in aid to Ukraine, which would bring total U.S. assistance for the country to more than $90 billion since the war began in February.

“Your money is not charity,” Zelenskyy said. “It’s an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.”

At the White House earlier Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced the United States would give Ukraine another $1.85 billion in military aid, including a Patriot missile battery, a sophisticated air defense system the Ukrainian armed forces have long sought to defend against Russian missile strikes.

Since the Ukrainian military pushed Russian forces back in a counteroffensive that began in September, the Kremlin has changed tack and focused on destroying civilian infrastructure, leaving much of Ukraine under frequent blackouts as the country’s harsh winter sets in.

“We should be clear about what Russia is doing,” Biden said in a joint news conference with Zelenskyy. “It is purposefully attacking Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, destroying the systems that provide heat and light to the Ukrainian people during the coldest, darkest part of the year. Russia is using winter as a weapon.”

With a winter storm brewing across much of the United States ahead of the Christmas weekend, close to half of House lawmakers had left the Capitol by the time Zelenskyy arrived. Nearly 200 members had filed letters allowing others to vote for them by proxy, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane.

Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho, attended the address and said afterward Zelenskyy had “hit all the right points” in his speech, calling the Ukrainian leader “a very charismatic leader and undoubtedly very brave.”

Fulcher, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, said he wants to see better oversight of how Ukraine is using the extraordinary amount of money and materiel the U.S. government is sending, but he stopped short of calling for the assistance to be cut off.

“He did a good job tonight, and I think he hit the points he needed to hit in order to try to garner further support,” Fulcher said. “That’s exactly what his objective was, and I think he’s going to get it. But I for one am not comfortable with burdening the American taxpayer for something that I can’t personally go home and say, ‘Yes, this is a good investment because we know where those dollars are being spent and we’ve got a good accounting for it.’ ”

Throughout his address, which he delivered entirely in English after relying on an interpreter during his news conference with Biden, Zelenskyy emphasized that Ukraine and the United States are in the fight together.

“It gives me great pleasure to share our first joint victory: We defeated Russia in the minds of the world,” he said to loud applause.

Several other Northwest lawmakers were in attendance, including Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington, and GOP Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo of Idaho.

“Tonight President Zelenskyy spoke to the American spirit,” Cantwell said. “Our two nations share the values of freedom, democracy, and independence. Washingtonians and Americans stand with Ukraine.”

Washington Reps. Kim Schrier, Derek Kilmer and Marilyn Strickland – all Democrats – also attended. In a post on Twitter after the address, Strickland called Zelenskyy “an incredible leader who puts his people and country first.”

Murray, who along with Risch was one of 11 senators who escorted Zelenskyy into the chamber, said in a statement U.S. support for Ukraine “is a national security and humanitarian priority,” adding that the Senate should pass the omnibus spending bill before year’s end.

“We have a moral obligation to protect human rights and need to do everything we can to stop Russia’s brutal war crimes and unprovoked assault on a peaceful democratic nation,” Murray said, “but standing with Ukraine is also critical for our shared global security.”

When Zelenskyy first entered the chamber, lawmakers gave him a two-minute standing ovation. He eventually turned to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., saying with a smile, “I think it’s too much.”

“It was astounding to me, really, to see such broad bicameral, bipartisan support, more than I’ve seen for anybody,” Fulcher said. “For a foreign leader – I mean, I’ve never seen a domestic leader to get that kind of response in the House chamber.”

Zelenskyy’s address mirrored Biden’s State of the Union address on March 1, the last time both chambers of Congress gathered for a joint session. Biden’s speech came just a week after Russia’s invasion and was marked by an uncommon show of bipartisanship every time the president mentioned Ukraine.

Near the end of his speech, as some lawmakers weary from long hours of negotiations on the spending bill nodded off between rounds of applause, Zelenskyy drew a resounding ovation when he quoted President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous speech after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

“The American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory,” Zelenskyy said. “The Ukrainian people will win, too. Absolutely.”