Saturday, April 13, 2024

Biden brings congressional leaders to White House at pivotal time for Ukraine aid and US border deal

by Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden hosted top congressional leaders at the White House to underscore Ukraine’s security needs as it continues to fight Russia’s nearly two-year-old invasion, hoping to add momentum to efforts to pass $110 billion in stalled aid to Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies.

Speaker Mike Johnson, in one of his few direct encounters with the president, used the face-to-face moment to push Biden for tougher border security measures, with the speaker telling him that GOP lawmakers were demanding “substantive policy change” and insisting that the White House’s executive actions on immigration had weakened the border.

The dueling focus from the two leaders highlighted the precarious nature of the complicated talks to unlock Ukraine aid, which is hinging on negotiations to enact tougher measures at the U.S.-Mexico border to satisfy Republicans who are otherwise hesitant about sending more aid abroad.

While Biden, Johnson and other lawmakers who went to the White House agree broadly on continuing to support Kyiv and implementing restrictions at the border, the two sides have remained at odds on details, with the speaker pushing the White House and Senate negotiators on immigration measures that go beyond what Biden is willing to accept.

“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 80 minutes and included senior congressional leaders and top lawmakers on national security committees. “But the American people have those same concerns about our own domestic sovereignty and our safety and our security.”

Later on Capitol Hill, Johnson said he was “cautiously optimistic” as he brushed past reporters.

Inside the Cabinet Room meeting, as the fireplace roared and tea and coffee were served, Biden again made clear to lawmakers what he had said in public for weeks: That the border is broken and that significant changes are needed, according to attendees.

“He even said, ‘I will do a big deal on the border,’” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., recounting Biden’s words from the meeting.

Part of the thinking behind the meeting was to populate it with national security leaders, to impress upon Johnson the importance of the aid package and the current U.S. approach to world affairs. So during Wednesday’s meeting, members of Biden’s national security team sought to underscore the real impact that fading U.S. support is having on the battlefield for Ukraine.

White House officials detailed for lawmakers that Ukrainian forces are running low on key weapons, including arms that the Ukrainians have no choice but to use because of the current nature of the fight, according to two U.S. officials who were not authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity to discuss the private talks.

One of the officials said Biden’s team broke down for lawmakers on a month-by-month basis the impact a lack of a congressional deal will have on Ukraine’s ability to defend territory and derail its efforts to win back land that Russia has captured. White House officials also stressed to lawmakers that the lack of U.S. commitment to provide further funding to Kyiv has emboldened Russian leader Vladimir Putin to carry out some of the biggest bombardments on Ukrainian soil since the war began in February 2022.

Following the meeting, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., warned that if Congress didn’t greenlight more aid, “within a year, we would be on our back foot, doing all kinds of things that we wouldn’t want to do.” Schumer also said Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, discussed how countries such as Japan and Korea “would probably turn from us if we didn’t support Ukraine.”

The White House readout of the meeting said Biden “underscored the importance of Congress ensuring Ukraine has the resources it needs—including air defense and artillery capabilities—to defend itself against Russia’s brutal invasion” and “discussed the strategic consequences of inaction for Ukraine, the United States, and the world.”

“He was clear: Congress’s continued failure to act endangers the United States’ national security, the NATO Alliance, and the rest of the free world,” the White House said. “The President called on Congress to quickly provide additional funding to support Ukraine and send a strong signal of U.S. resolve.”

Biden invited 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 also 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.

Ahead of the meeting, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the package could be ready for a vote as soon as next week, although negotiations are ongoing. An optimistic Schumer told reporters at the White House that the prospects of a border deal are “a little bit greater than half now.”

“That’s the first time I can say that,” Schumer said.

Johnson, since taking the gavel in October, has 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’s end.

Still, reflecting the views of his conference, Johnson has called for any border security deal to align with the House-passed strict border security bill that no Democrats support. He showed some flexibility following the White House gathering on Wednesday, telling reporters that Republicans were not insisting on a “particular name on a piece of legislation.”

No Republican during the White House gathering, including Johnson, drew a red line on demanding the House GOP’s immigration bill, according to a person familiar with the meeting and granted anonymity to speak about it.

Johnson also 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 GOP 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 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.

The Republican leader echoed that message during the White House meeting, saying there is an opportunity to do a border deal now that Republicans couldn’t get if the Republicans had the Senate, the House and the presidency, according to Himes.

“The comment, I interpreted as an advisory to the speaker,” Himes said.

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.

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