Being the only Democrat on a plane full of Republicans last week could have been awkward for Rep. Peter Welch — especially with GOP leaders are doubling down on criticism of President Barack Obama's foreign policy.
But Welch, a Vermonter with a reputation for seeking common ground with lawmakers on the other side of the aisle, had nothing but praise for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the other Republicans he accompanied last week to Tunisia and Ukraine. "I give Kevin a lot of credit," Welch told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday afternoon. "Kevin played it straight."
McCarthy, R-Calif., invited Welch along on the trip with six Republican colleagues, many of whom Welch has already been working with on bipartisan legislation.
"In all these meetings, [McCarthy] was asking straightforward questions: 'What should we do? What's the situation?'" Welch continued. "There was never any edge that we were here to battle on the policy, never in any of our meetings or in any of these countries a partisan edge to anything he said. In fact, he went out of his way to say, 'This is a bipartisan delegation.' Not a single utterance that was critical of President Obama, and I give him a lot of credit for setting the tone."
McCarthy did release a statement last week from Kiev following a meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko reiterating his support for a House-passed resolution urging Obama to provide military support to the Ukrainian government in defense against Russian aggression — a suggestion Obama has not yet heeded.
Welch voted against the resolution in late March, a demonstration of his disappointment it had been rushed to the floor without prior committee consideration.
"I went over with an open mind," he said of his trip to Ukraine.
But Welch returned still disinclined to support the measure. He said there was a "compelling case" to be made to give provide military resources to Ukraine. But there is no guarantee such aid would solve the crisis, Welch said he ultimately concluded, referencing some experts who contend arms would only escalate the situation to a point of no return.
Welch said the congressional delegation's first stop in Tunisia almost didn't happen. The arrangements were made weeks earlier, long before the March 18 terrorist attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis that left 22 dead.
"I was so delighted that Kevin McCarthy kept the schedule and didn't change it, despite a lot of suggestions from security folks we shouldn't go," Welch said. "It was more important to go in the wake of that tragedy to demonstrate support, particularly when this is so devastating to the economy of Tunisia."
The lawmakers had originally intended to go to Tunis to show solidarity with the new democratically-elected government that arose from the uprising in 2011. Given the recent tragedy, they also ended up visiting the site of the massacre to lay a wreath in memory of the victims.
"It was pretty heartbreaking to be there," Welch said. "It was just something, seeing the bullet holes when you're going up these stairs from the first to the second floor, more and more bullet holes in the floors and the ceilings and the walls. ... It was quite horrifying. But it gave us a great deal of respect for Tunisian people and Tunisian government."
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