By Lisa Mascaro and Seung Min Kim
January 17, 2024
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden convened top congressional leaders at the White House to underscore Ukraine’s security needs, a meeting that comes at a pivotal time as senators narrow on a landmark immigration deal that could unlock $110 billion in stalled aid to Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies.
But Speaker Mike Johnson and other Republicans used the face-to-face moment with Biden to push him for tougher border security measures, with the speaker telling the president that GOP lawmakers were demanding “substantive policy change” and insisting that the White House’s executive actions on immigration had weakened the border. “We understand that there’s concern about the safety, security and sovereignty of Ukraine,” Johnson told reporters after the meeting, which ran for more than an hour. “But the American people have those same concerns about our own domestic sovereignty and our safety and our security.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., also speaking to reporters after the meeting, stressed that Biden has repeatedly said he is willing to compromise on certain border measures and that any effort in a divided Congress must be bipartisan. House Republicans have insisted on passage of a hardline border security measure that has no Democratic support on Capitol Hill. “There was a large amount of agreement around the table that we must do Ukraine, and we must do border,” he said.
The White House called the meeting with lawmakers — including Johnson, House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — to brief them on Ukraine’s current need for weapons and other aid, which the White House described as “desperate” and “urgent.”
By populating the meeting with national security leaders, the meeting was expected to impress on the new speaker the importance of the aid package and the current U.S. approach to world affairs. The Republicans in the room, even Johnson, are largely supportive of aiding Ukraine but have stressed to the White House that it will need significant border-security measures in return to persuade the large swath of rank-and-file GOP lawmakers skeptical about sending more funds abroad. “He’s willing to hear what these congressional members want to talk about, but the purpose of this meeting is to talk about Ukraine,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said ahead of the mid-afternoon gathering, which was held in the Cabinet Room.
Biden is convening the lawmakers at the start of an election year when border security and the wars abroad are punctuating the race for the White House as he faces a potential rematch against Republican Donald Trump with control of the presidency and Congress all at stake.
It comes as Congress is about to quickly approve temporary funding to avoid a government shutdown, postponing the annual spending battles, but as the supplemental aid package sits undone during the immigration and border talks.
Biden, a longtime leader in U.S. foreign policy, finds himself confronting a new generation of Republican lawmakers who have little interest in engaging abroad or supporting vast American military aid or actions around the world.
Led by Trump, the former president who is the GOP’s front-runner for the nomination, a growing number of the Republicans in Congress are particularly hostile to helping Ukraine fight Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who along with U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met this week with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy in Davos, said Washington is determined to keep supporting Ukraine, and “we’re working very closely with Congress in order to do that.”
Ahead of the meeting, McConnell announced the package could be ready for a vote as soon as next week, and Schumer sounded a similarly optimistic note — though negotiations continue.
Johnson, since taking the gavel in October, signaled he personally believes in supporting Ukraine as it works to expel Russia. He met privately with Zelenskyy during the Ukrainian president’s whirlwind tour of Washington last month seeking aid before the year-end holidays.
But the speaker leads an ambivalent House GOP majority that wants to extract its own priorities on the U.S.-Mexico border in exchange for any overseas support.
The speaker has insisted any border security deal must align with the House-passed strict border security bill. He told lawmakers in a private meeting over the weekend that they could probably get their priorities enacted with a Republican president, though the speaker did not mean that to preclude not taking action now, said a Republican leadership aide familiar with the call.
But senators, even fellow Republicans, say the House approach is a nonstarter that would never find the bipartisan backing in both chambers needed for approval.
Instead, a core group of senators led by Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma has been meeting privately for weeks with Biden’s top advisers, including Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, to develop a border security package that could actually be signed into law.
Lankford told reporters late Tuesday that he hopes to prepare bill text as negotiations try to wrap up soon.
McConnell told GOP senators privately last week they should take the deal Lankford is producing, according to a person granted anonymity to discuss the closed meeting. “This is a unique moment in time,” said the No. 2 Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota. “It’s an opportunity to get some really conservative border policy that we haven’t been able to get for 40 years,” he said. “And so we’ll see. I mean, it may or may not happen, but I think you got to take a run at it.”
The broader security package includes about $60 billion for Ukraine, which is mainly used to purchase U.S. weaponry to fight the war and to shore up its own government operations, along with some $14.5 billion for Israel, about $14 billion for border security and additional funds for other security needs.
Biden opened the door to a broader U.S.-Mexico border security package late last year and the changes being discussed could be difficult for some Democrats who oppose strict restrictions on immigration.
Schumer said negotiations over the border security package have made progress in recent weeks and he was “hopeful that things are headed in the right direction.”
Schumer said he expects the meeting with Biden will reinforce that the national security package is urgent and “any agreement on an issue as complex and contentious as the border is going to have to have support from both sides of the aisle.”