In his State of the Union address in March 2022, President Biden decried Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying: “Freedom will always triumph over tyranny.” Democratic and Republican lawmakers repeatedly rose to applaud Biden’s condemnations. This bipartisan unity contrasted sharply with Congress’s — and the United States’ — recent extreme partisanship. But it continued Congress’s recent pattern of strong bipartisan cooperation on Russia and Ukraine policy.
That common ground gives Congress a chance to help the White House shape the U.S. response to the war. But don’t expect bipartisanship on Ukraine to usher in a new era of good feelings on Capitol Hill.
Congress can be more than a sideshow
While the president leads U.S. responses to international crises, Congress has critical tasks such as allocating funds, outlining policy directions and either backing or restraining the president. Yet for decades now, on many national security issues — from the use of military force since Sept. 11, 2001, to overseeing the State and Defense departments — Congress has often punted to the president or failed to exercise its constitutional responsibilities.
But Congress has been deeply involved in making U.S. policy toward Russia and Ukraine over the past decade. It has approved a serious of laws mandating sanctions on Russia for such issues as human rights violations, its annexation of Crimea by force, and its interference in U.S. elections. And Congress has voted to provide $2.7 billion in military aid to Ukraine. Concerned that then-President Donald Trump wanted to curry favor with Vladimir Putin, in 2017 Congress even took the remarkable step of restricting the president’s authority to remove Russia sanctions.
Bipartisanship is still alive
The House and Senate approved the landmark Russia sanctions laws of the past decade with the support of large majorities in both parties. Democratic and Republican lawmakers have also worked together closely since 2014 on military aid for Ukraine, showing that Democrats and Republicans still cooperate on some important domestic and foreign policy issues.
Why can the two parties work together to oppose Russia and support Ukraine? That’s in part because Americans hold highly unfavorable attitudes toward the Russian government and believe more generally that the United States should stand on the side of democracy and human rights. This belief is also in part why Democrats and Republicans have increasingly backed a tough U.S. stance toward China.
Most Democrats and Republicans nationwide continue to agree on Russia and Ukraine policy. A recent CNN poll found that 56 percent of the members of each party oppose direct U.S. military intervention in the conflict, while more than 8 in 10 Democrats and Republicans favor increasing sanctions on Russia. To be sure, many congressional Republicans are blaming Biden for the crisis. But on policy, GOP leaders on Capitol Hill are willing to work with Democrats on legislation providing extensive aid to Ukraine.
Republicans are split
At the same time, this crisis has revealed that the GOP fractured on foreign policy during the Trump era. As president, Trump sought to reorient the party from Ronald Reagan’s muscular internationalism to an “America First” policy that ignored democratic violations. But both Democrats and Republicans in Congress pushed back against his efforts to reduce the U.S. military presence overseas and to favor autocrats such as Putin over long-standing democratic allies like Germany and France.
As Trump has continued to praise Putin in recent weeks, he’s been echoed by some commentators and politicians on the right, from Fox News host Tucker Carlson to Senate candidate J.D. Vance of Ohio. But many other GOP leaders — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — have strongly condemned Putin’s actions and called for a forceful U.S. response. What’s more, one senator — Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — has been tweeting information about and condemnation of Russia’s war against Ukraine, perhaps to build his reputation on foreign policy should he run for the presidency in 2024.
More generally, Americans’ broad support for aiding Ukraine and countering Russia suggests that the U.S. public supports international engagement more than many analysts have believed. Internationalist Democrats and Republicans may use the Ukraine aid package that Congress is now developing to show how isolated the Republican Party’s MAGA wing is on world affairs.
Unity will not last
Congressional Democrats and Republicans are likely to agree to send billions more in aid to Ukraine when, in the coming days, they finalize spending measures for the current fiscal year.
But don’t expect bipartisan cooperation to spread to other issues. So far, public opinion data offer no sign that American support for Biden’s policies toward Ukraine is generating a broader “rally around the flag” effect, in which a crisis boosts the president’s popularity. That happened after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when President George W. Bush’s approval rating jumped 40 percent. Even if Americans continue to support Biden’s approach to the crisis, Republicans will almost surely stay focused on blocking other parts of his agenda.
With midterm elections looming this fall, Republicans will probably seek to shift the national conversation to issues like inflation and crime, where they think they have a political advantage. They are also likely to blame Biden for any economic fallout at home from the sanctions on Russia. Whether the Ukraine crisis helps Democrats in November will depend not only on how the war unfolds, but also on what happens with the economy, the pandemic and other domestic concerns in the months ahead.
Jordan Tama (@ProfJordanTama) is associate professor at the School of International Service at American University. He served in the House of Representatives as an American Political Science Association congressional fellow in 2012.
Updated Oct. 5, 2023