The Hill’s Morning Report — In Washington, Zelensky appeals to Congress for aid

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The Hill's Morning Report — In Washington, Zelensky appeals to Congress for aid

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a historic visit to Washington on Wednesday, leaving his country for the first time since Russia’s February invasion to address a joint session of Congress and make a direct appeal to Americans for more aid. 

Speaking in the House chamber, Zelensky stressed U.S. support can help hasten the end of Russia’s war in Ukraine, where shelling and attacks continue daily and have severely impacted the country’s heat and power grids. His visit came as Congress prepares to pass $45 billion in further military, economic and humanitarian assistance related to Ukraine as Russia continues its winter offensive.

“I hope my words of respect and gratitude resonate in each American heart,” Zelensky said. “Our two nations are allies in this battle, and next year will be a turning point. I know it — the point when Ukrainian courage and American resolve must guarantee the future of our common freedom.”

The Ukrainian military has shocked the world with its ability to repel Moscow’s invasion. Russia has been dealt major setbacks and the bulk of the fighting — now largely frozen in place — has been confined to the outer reaches of Ukraine. But a new wave of Russian attacks on the electrical grid have plunged much of Ukraine into darkness, leaving millions without heat and light.

Congress’s massive, $45 billion aid package reflects strong support from both parties and chambers, but it has faced criticism from some Republicans who argue against big-dollar foreign assistance, and some polls reflect slipping American support for financing a nearly 10-month war that shows little sign of resolving.

Zelensky on Wednesday warned against the U.S. turning away from providing robust support for Kyiv, arguing that the aid would help protect countries globally (The Hill and The Washington Post). 

“This battle cannot be frozen or postponed,” he said. “It cannot be ignored, hoping that the ocean or something else will provide a protection.”

House Republicans offered mixed reactions to Zelensky’s address, foreshadowing a bumpier road that his country will face in securing aid once the GOP takes control of the House in a few weeks. Republican supporters of aiding Ukraine’s efforts against Russia praised Zelensky’s speech. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) said that Zelensky had “overwhelming support” in the chamber and will “continue to have that.”

Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), meanwhile, sat out most standing ovations during the speech. Boebert said in a video after the speech that she would not support any more money to Ukraine until there is a “full audit” of where already approved funds have gone (The Hill).

The Hill’s Mychael Schnell breaks down the five biggest moments from Zelensky’s speech.

The New York Times: Zelensky’s Message: Ukraine is fighting for good over evil.

The Hill: Five takeaways from Zelensky’s trip to Washington.

The Hill: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gifts Zelensky a U.S. flag that flew above the Capitol.

Bloomberg News: How Zelensky made his high-security train-to-plane journey to Washington.

The New Republic: Republicans are turning on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over his support for Ukraine.


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The Hill: Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) on possible reelection bid: “I’m convinced that if I run, I win.”


LEADING THE DAY

➤ CONGRESS

© Associated Press / Mariam Zuhaib | Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) at the Capitol on Dec. 14.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) took to the floor at 2 a.m. today to announce lawmakers were close to an agreement to speed up passage of the fiscal 2023 omnibus spending bill, after senators spent Wednesday clamoring behind the scenes to work out last-minute amendment details.

“It is my expectation we will be able to lock in an agreement on the omnibus [Thursday] morning,” Schumer said. “We are very close, but we’re not there yet.”

Schumer said the chamber will reconvene at 8 a.m., for a nomination vote, which would “bring everybody here to get final agreement and then to move forward.”

An effort led by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to maintain Title 42 — a pandemic-era federal immigration policy the Biden administration is trying to end that allows for migrants to be turned away at the southern border — had been threatening efforts to pass the sweeping bill before the shutdown deadline kicks in at midnight on Friday.

Congressional negotiators on both sides said Wednesday that the biggest holdup was ongoing negotiations to decide what the voting threshold would be to pass the amendment. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, took aim at the push, while raising concerns about its chances of passing a Democratic-led House. 

“We have a difference of opinion on immigration policy. We’re not going to solve that in this budget,” he told reporters late Wednesday. “And to let that disagreement take down aid to Ukraine to keep people alive during a cold winter, especially tonight, is pretty unthinkable.”

Lawmakers have been working for weeks to finalize the nearly $1.7 trillion spending package, and are pushing against a hard Friday deadline — and a looming winter storm that threatens to disrupt travel across much of the country (The Hill and Roll Call).

In the House, Pelosi’s Speakership is ending in a historic manner, with the release of Trump’s tax records, the Jan. 6 committee’s report and criminal referrals, and an historic address to Congress by Ukraine’s president intended to lock in U.S. support for that country, The Hill’s Mike Lillis reports. Any of those items would have been a significant triumph in a brief lame-duck session following midterm elections that will put Republicans in charge of the lower chamber next year, but the combination constitutes an extraordinary — and highly consequential — string of wins for Pelosi and the Democrats just weeks before she steps out of power after 20 years and passes on the torch to a younger generation.

Politico: The big question hanging over Washington this week: Will the Jan. 6 report be the beginning of Congress’s work — or the end?

The Hill: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) asks Senate Republicans to trust his ability to run the House in 2023.

ADMINISTRATION

Before addressing Congress on Wednesday, Zelensky met with Biden at the White House, where the latter addressed Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he was “escalating his assault on civilians” and that he was trying to “use winter as a weapon.”

In response, Zelensky — who also met with other senior administration officials — said he offered “all my appreciations from my heart and from the heart of all Ukrainians.” 

The visit came as the U.S. announced billions of dollars in additional weapons for Kyiv. The $1.85 billion aid package includes the first-ever transfer of a Patriot missile defense system, designed to shoot down missiles and aircraft, and Joint Direct Attack Munitions kits, used to convert aerial munitions into smart bombs (The Hill and Politico).

During a joint press conference, Biden pledged to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” vowing to help Kyiv win on the battlefield before any peace talks could take place with Moscow. Zelensky and top Ukrainian officials have been warning in recent days that Russia is preparing to renew its invasion with a massive ground offensive with an estimated 200,000 troops. 

“We’re going to help Ukraine succeed on the battlefield — if and when President Zelensky is ready to talk to the Russians, he will be able to succeed as well because he will have won on the battlefield,” Biden said.

Zelensky echoed Biden’s remarks, saying that a “just peace” for Ukraine is about ensuring all of the country’s territory was liberated — and secure — from Russia (The Hill). 

CNN: Biden and Zelensky put their united front on display after historic White House meeting.

The Washington Post: Zelensky’s visit yields a remarkable moment for two presidents.

© Associated Press / Andrew Harnik | President Biden walks through the White House Colonnade with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday.

IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES

POLITICS

After a years-long fight over the records, the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday voted to release former President Trump’s tax returns. The documents show that Trump paid no income tax during the final full year of his presidency as he reported a loss from his sprawling business interests.

In 2016 and 2017, Trump paid $750 annually in federal income taxes, whittling away his tax bill by claiming steep business losses that offset that income.

The New York Times: Here are the key numbers from Trump’s tax returns.

Vox: Trump’s tax returns are about to become public. What happens now?

The records sharply contrast with the former president’s long-cultivated image as a successful businessman, especially as he mounts another bid for the White House. In reality, the tax returns are littered with dozens of audit triggers, according to Congress’s top nonpartisan tax lawyers, including large unsubstantiated charitable deductions, questionable private jet expenses and dubious payments to Trump’s children. 

But a new report from the Joint Committee on Taxation shows that none of them have ever been seriously audited (Reuters and Bloomberg News).

Though the IRS has a longstanding policy of automatically auditing every president, Democrats say the agency did not begin vetting Trump’s filings until they started to ask about them in 2019 (PBS and Politico).

The Hill’s Tobias Burns explains how Trump paid $0 in income tax in 2020.

The FBI was initially reluctant to investigate Trump’s possession of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, and cautious when it did so, The Washington Post reports.

The Hill: Jan. 6 panel releases transcripts for first 34 witness testimonies.

INTERNATIONAL

As the war in Ukraine prepares to enter its second year, Ukrainian troops will find it much more challenging to reclaim territory from Russian forces, according to American officials. Despite ongoing Russian attacks on civilian power supplies, Ukraine has kept up the momentum on the front lines since September. 

But according to U.S. government assessments, the tide of the war is likely to change in the coming months as Russia improves its defenses and pushes more soldiers to the front lines (The New York Times).

Putin on Wednesday said Russia has “no limitations” on military spending for the war as he urged the army to deliver on his declared goals (Bloomberg News).

“The country and government is giving everything that the army asks for — everything,” Putin told top military officials at the Defense Ministry’s annual meeting in Moscow on Wednesday. “I trust that there will be an appropriate response and the results will be achieved.”

The Wall Street Journal: Russia’s draft patched holes but also exposed flaws in its war machine.

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said the agency is “very concerned” about rising reports of severe COVID-19 cases across China after the country largely abandoned its “zero COVID” policy, warning that its lagging vaccination rate could result in large numbers of infections among vulnerable populations (PBS).

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the agency needs more information on COVID-19 severity in the country, particularly regarding hospital and intensive care unit admissions, “in order to make a comprehensive risk assessment of the situation on the ground.”

The unprecedented wave of infections in China has also triggered widespread drug shortages as people scramble to buy fever medicines and painkillers to alleviate flu-like symptoms (CNN).

The Times of Israel: Incoming President Benjamin Netanyahu announces his sixth government, Israel’s most hardline ever.

Vox: The far-right threat to liberal democracy in Europe, explained.


OPINION

■ Zelensky’s visit highlights that freedom is winning in Ukraine — for now, by The Washington Post Editorial Board. https://wapo.st/3ChQDoz 

■ Time for Republicans to stop being scared of Trump, by Rich Lowry, contributing writer, Politico Magazine. https://politi.co/3BSS5gW 

WHERE AND WHEN

🎄 A note to readers: Happy Holidays! The quiz is taking a week off this week but will return in time for New Year’s, and Friday’s newsletter will be helmed by Hill reporter Julia Mueller. Kristina Karisch will return to Morning Report on Tuesday, Dec. 27; Alexis Simendinger will be back in January. 

👉 The Hill: Share a news query tied to an expert journalist’s insights: The Hill launched something new and (we hope) engaging via text with Editor-in-Chief Bob Cusack. Learn more and sign up HERE.

The House will convene at 9 a.m.

The Senate will convene at 8 a.m.

The president will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 9 a.m.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will hold a press briefing at the State Department at 11:30 a.m.


ELSEWHERE

➤ STATE WATCH

© Associated Press / Chris Machian/Omaha World-Herald | Crews deice a Southwest Airlines plane before takeoff in Omaha, Neb. on Wednesday.

More than 90 million people are under winter weather alerts and more than 87 million are under wind chill alerts as a major winter storm and cold blast will impact nearly every state, bringing what the National Weather Service calls a “once in a generation type event” that will cripple travel just days before Christmas.

The alerts stretch across 37 states, going as far south as the Texas-Mexico border. The storm is expected to bring more than a foot of snow and possible blizzard conditions to the Midwest, and the weather service is warning of “life-threatening” wind chills for millions (CNN).

The New York Times: What to know if the winter storm wreaks havoc on your holiday travel.

NBC News: Live updates: Winter storm warning issued for millions as flash freezes and blizzard conditions loom.

PANDEMIC & HEALTH 

The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday approved a monoclonal antibody from Roche to treat COVID-19 in hospitalized adult patients. The drug, called Actemra, was originally approved in 2010 to treat adult patients with moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis. 

The company said it is the first FDA-approved monoclonal antibody to treat severe COVID-19 (The Hill).

While about 94 percent of people 65 and older had their initial COVID-19 vaccines, only 36 percent have received the updated booster vaccines, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seniors have offered an array of explanations for missing the new shot — they were unaware of it, unable to find it or unconvinced of its value (The New York Times).

“The evidence is clear: Even if you got the shot two years ago, your immunity has waned. But the people who most need to hear that have not,” Michael Wasserman, a geriatrician and the public policy chair of the California Association of Long Term Care Medicine, told the Times. “When you combine pandemic fatigue with no real plan from the government together, what we have is a perfect storm.”

Information about COVID-19 vaccine and booster shot availability can be found at Vaccines.gov.

The Washington Post: First came a viral storm. Now, we have puzzling superinfections.

Axios: A map of where health insurance premiums are rising and falling.

VeryWell: Moderna’s personalized mRNA cancer vaccine shows promising results in an early trial.

Total U.S. coronavirus deaths reported as of this morning, according to Johns Hopkins University (trackers all vary slightly): 1,089,340. Current U.S. COVID-19 deaths are 2,703 for the week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (The CDC shifted its tally of available data from daily to weekly, now reported on Fridays.)


THE CLOSER

© Associated Press / Robert F. Bukaty | The midday winter solstice sun in New Hampshire on Dec. 21, 2019.

And finally… ☀️The days are starting to get longer again. Wednesday marked the winter solstice, or the shortest day and longest night of the year, as well as the first day of astronomical winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Now longer, brighter days are upon us.

The sun appears directly over the Tropic of Capricorn during the winter solstice, a line of latitude 23.5 degrees south of Earth’s equator. The sun’s daily southward movement in the sky appears to pause, and the sun rises and sets at its southernmost points on the horizon.

The Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun in December, resulting in less direct sunlight and colder weather — or winter. Meanwhile, in the Southern Hemisphere, the same date marks the longest day of the year, and the first day of summer (The Washington Post).


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