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Politics chat: Congress unifies in denouncing Russia; Supreme Court nominee chosen

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

And with that, we'll turn now to NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: It seems that the Ukraine crisis is a rare moment of political unity on Capitol Hill, at least relatively speaking. Would you say so?

LIASSON: Yes, I would. It's rare, but so far there is bipartisan support for the sanctions against Russia. There actually is support for more aid to Ukraine. The sanctions imposed so far are things that President Biden has been able to do on his own. Congress has only passed a symbolic resolution criticizing Russia, but there is a bipartisan move in Congress to do more, and there probably will be a big, new emergency supplemental aid bill that would provide aid for Ukraine.

MCCAMMON: But at the same time, Mara, it's not as though congressional Republicans are celebrating President Biden's handling of the situation.

LIASSON: Certainly not. We are a long way past the point in the United States where politics stops at the water's edge. Republicans have criticized Biden - his moves on Ukraine for being too little, too late. They've said that he's weak. At the same time they are saying that Biden sanctions are too weak, they're also ready to blame him for any blowback - any repercussions to the American economy from tougher sanctions, like higher oil and gas prices, prices at the pump. And that is a clear political problem that Biden will bear alone. You know, public polling on the U.S. response to Putin's invasion of Ukraine has been bipartisan. Recent Washington Post polls showed 67% of U.S. adults supporting sanctions, 80% of Democrats and 60% of Republicans - big support. But that support drops a bit when people are asked whether they would continue to support sanctions if it meant higher energy prices. So we don't know what sacrifices, if any, the American people are willing to make to defend stability in Europe.

MCCAMMON: And then we have other powerful voices on the right, like former President Trump and Tucker Carlson of Fox News, who've sounded different on Russia. What are they saying, Mara? And how out of step are they here?

LIASSON: Well, I think they're out of step with majority public opinion, but they're not out of step with a significant chunk of the Republican base. You know, Donald Trump has called Putin's move genius. He's praised him since the invasion for being smart and savvy. That's not much different from the admiration he showed for Putin when he was in office. Remember, in 2016, the Trump campaign removed language in the Republican platform supporting sending aid to Ukraine. Part of his first impeachment involved withholding military aid to Ukraine. But Putin spoke at the big Conservative Political Action Conference over the weekend. He kind of recalibrated his remarks.

MCCAMMON: Trump spoke, Mara.

LIASSON: I'm sorry, Trump spoke.

MCCAMMON: Yes.

LIASSON: (Laughter). He said it was an outrage - the invasion was an outrage, but he also said, of course, it wouldn't have happened if he was in office. But there's no doubt that on the far right, Putin is a kind of hero. And at a recent white nationalist conference, the crowd was chanting Putin, Putin, Putin.

MCCAMMON: Amid the Ukraine crisis, domestic politics continue. There's a new Supreme Court nominee. What explains President Biden's decision to announce Ketanji Brown Jackson's nomination now while the whole world is watching Kyiv?

LIASSON: Well, this was the plan, and there - I don't think there was really any discussion in the White House of delaying this. The White House can walk and chew gum at the same time. This is a historic pick, first African American woman nominated to the court. And so far, there's no sign that she won't get all 50 Democratic votes in the Senate. She did get three Republican votes for her confirmation to the appeals court - Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Lindsey Graham. But politically, this is a chance for Joe Biden not just to make history but also to rally Democrats and to energize the Democratic base.

MCCAMMON: Tuesday, Biden will deliver the State of the Union address. What are you watching for?

LIASSON: You know, the State of the Union address is the most important moment that a president gets. He has an undivided attention of a big chunk of American voters. And he goes into this address with two big announcements behind him - one, obviously, Ketanji Brown Jackson's nomination. But also, the CDC has adjusted and recalibrated its mask mandate guidance. It says that in 70% of American - of America, most people in most places can take off their masks. That's something that the White House really wanted to have in the rearview mirror so it could move forward.

He also is going to talk about Ukraine, obviously. He's going to try to explain why it's in America's national security interest to help Ukraine fight for its self-determination. What I'm watching for is how he uses the State of the Union to do a reset on his presidency. He's in a deep hole. His approval ratings are low. He and his party are facing really stiff headwinds going into the midterms. How does he talk about the economy? Does he try to tell Americans that things are really great because GDP is up, and unemployment is down, and blue-collar wages are up? That can be tricky because if - you can't jawbone people into thinking things are better than they feel it in their own wallets. It can be insulting. Does he try to tell Americans that he will protect them from inflation, how he will prevent their paychecks from being eaten up by inflation? Those are the things that I'm watching for on Tuesday night.

MCCAMMON: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good to talk with you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOSI HORIKAWA'S "STARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.