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Zelensky plans to meet with Biden, appear before Congress on Wednesday

Zelensky plans to meet with Biden, appear before Congress on Wednesday

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday plans to appear in Washington to meet with President Biden and visit Capitol Hill, according to people familiar with the plan, a trip that will mark Zelensky’s first public international appearance since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Biden and Zelensky are scheduled to meet at the White House, according to a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the visit, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting has not yet been publicly announced. The White House declined to comment.

Zelensky also plans to meet with congressional leaders to thank lawmakers for including funding for Ukraine spending package they are expected to pass this week, according to a congressional aide familiar with the plan.

He is expected to address members of Congress and lawmakers are rescheduling plans to be in Washington, according to a second congressional aide familiar with the plan. The contributors spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.

The visit comes as the Biden administration is expected to announce a new military aid package for Ukraine as early as Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the plans. The package is expected to include a Patriot missile battery, this person said.

Punchbowl News first reported plans for Zelensky’s appearance.

Without disclosing Zelensky’s visit, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a letter to her colleagues on Tuesday asking lawmakers to attend “in person” for a “very special focus on democracy” on Wednesday night. The letter caused a stir among lawmakers who had already left Washington.

Dozens of members of the Ukraine Caucus in Congress were also kept in the dark about the plans, although their group is always aware of discussions between the United States and the Zelensky administration, according to several who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke of a condition for anonymity to outline private discussions.

House members and aides were shocked to hear that Zelensky could visit the Capitol on Wednesday, a day the Senate hopes to leave town after passing a year-long government funding bill. Zelensky will appear before Congress at a time when Republicans on Capitol Hill have begun to express deep displeasure that America is funding Ukraine’s ongoing war with Russia.

Both the House and Senate must vote to pass resolutions that allow a joint session of Congress. The House will vote on Wednesday evening at the earliest.

The planned trip to Capitol Hill comes amid a busy year-end for the Democratic-controlled Congress, which is seeking to pass a sweeping government funding bill this includes an additional $44.9 billion in emergency military and economic assistance to Ukraine.

Zelensky on Tuesday made an unexpected visit of the troops defending Bakhmut at present site of some of the bloodiest fought in the war. In remarks on Tuesday, Zelensky said this week was “extremely important for Ukraine — to get through this winter and next year. To get the necessary support and for the Ukrainian flag to finally prevail on all sections of our border.

He added: “Our fighters gave me our flag today and asked me to hand it over to those whose decisions are very important for Ukraine, for all our soldiers. We definitely will. We will definitely endure. We will definitely get the necessary support for Ukraine!”

Zelensky’s travel plans to the United States have been kept extremely close due to concerns that his security could be at risk. Aides in Congress worried that word of his exit from the trip could immediately jeopardize his chances of leaving Ukraine, people familiar with the situation said.

Biden has made maintaining a Western coalition in support of Ukraine a central mission of his presidency. Although all countries in the coalition are grappling with the economic fallout of the war, they have shown little sign of withdrawing or softening their support, even as heating prices soar in winter.

Biden and Zelensky have spoken repeatedly since the start of the Russian invasion in February, sometimes speaking as often as every two weeks. Although the two have been on friendly terms and have gone out of their way to publicly praise each other, their relationship has also had moments of strain.

In the early months of the conflict, for example, Zelensky frequently criticized the United States and other Western countries for not doing enough, even after Congress and the White House approved multibillion-dollar aid and weapons packages.

While Biden understood as a fellow politician that Zelensky needed to stand up for his people, he also told the Ukrainian leader privately that it would be difficult for him to continue asking Congress for money if Zelensky seemed ungrateful and continued to say that this not enough, according to a former White House official familiar with the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation.

In another conversation this summer, Zelensky told Biden that the United States must do more. Biden stopped the Ukrainian leader and reminded him that the effects of the war are not lost on Americans who pay more gas prices amid record inflation, according to a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation.

However, the White House expressed unwavering support for Ukraine. When asked how long the United States can be expected to pour billions into the war effort, Biden and his top aides often say, “As long as it takes.”

Biden also made it clear that he would not force Zelensky to negotiate with Russia before he was ready. “Nothing for Ukraine without Ukraine” has become a common refrain of the president.

Biden earlier this month said he would be willing to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the war in Ukraine, but stressed that such a discussion was not imminent because Putin has shown no willingness to seek a peaceful solution and has used horrific tactics against Ukrainian civilians.

“I’m willing to talk to Mr. Putin if he’s interested in deciding that he’s looking for a way to end the war,” Biden said. “If that is the case, after consulting with my friends in France and NATO, I would be happy to sit down with Mr. Putin to see what he has in mind.” He didn’t do that.”

On Capitol Hill, several members and aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, saw the last-minute invitation to Zelensky as Pelosi’s last major act as speaker. During the year, Pelosi made several trips around the world to countries she championed as pro-democracy fighters, from Ukraine to Taiwan.

Several members who were in town for other meetings planned to leave town Wednesday before a snowstorm hit the country or stay home and vote remotely to push through the annual government funding bill. Given Zelensky’s planned visit, many delayed their flights or decided it was worth it to return to Washington to honor him in person.

Liz Goodwin, Karen DeYoung and Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.

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