WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Mike Johnson told fellow Republicans on Tuesday that sweeping changes to U.S. border policy would be their "hill to die on" in negotiations that have already grown tense as Congress considers President Joe Biden's $110 billion package for the wars in Ukraine and Israel and other security needs, with at least $61 billion set for Ukraine.
Johnson, R-La., delivered the hard-line message Tuesday morning ahead of classified briefings the Biden administration organized to underscore how desperately the aid is needed. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was scheduled to address the senators via video but had to cancel his appearance, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer said.
"Something happened at the last minute," Schumer said Tuesday afternoon, announcing the change in plans, without giving further explanation.
Earlier Tuesday, he had heralded Zelenskyy's planned appearance as an important message to Republicans, who have resisted more funds for Ukraine unless Congress simultaneously adopts policies to clamp down on migration at the U.S. border with Mexico, which Democrats have rejected.
"The last time he spoke to us, his message was direct and unsparing: Without more aid from Congress, Ukraine does not have the means to defeat Vladimir Putin," Schumer, D-N.Y., said of Zelenskyy on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. "Those who think Vladimir Putin will stop merely at Ukraine willfully ignore the clear and unmistakable warnings of history. It is therefore urgent for the Senate to pass a security supplemental."
Instead, the meeting erupted in frustration and yelling as Republicans insisted on including border security in the discussion. Democrats have dismissed the Republican border proposals as attempts to return to the policies of former President Donald Trump.
Biden is pushing a reluctant Congress to approve the military, economic and humanitarian aid package, but the topic of border security has made progress in the negotiations difficult. The Senate was headed to a test vote today, but Republicans have promised to block it.
"The battle is for the border," Johnson said at a news conference. "We do that first as a top priority, and we'll take care of these other obligations."
Moments earlier, Johnson told GOP lawmakers in a closed-door meeting that their "hill to die on" in the negotiations was border policy, according to a Republican in the meeting. Conservatives are pressing for the provisions in H.R. 2, a bill they passed in May that would restart construction of walls along the southern border and make it drastically more difficult for migrants to claim asylum in the U.S.
Johnson reiterated his stance in a letter to the White House on Tuesday, one day after officials warned that the U.S. will run out of funding to send weapons and assistance to Ukraine by the end of the year, threatening its ability to fight Russia's invasion.
"Rather than engaging with congressional Republicans to discuss logical reforms, the Biden administration has ignored reality, choosing instead to engage in political posturing," Johnson wrote in a letter Tuesday to Shalanda Young, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. He was responding to a letter Young sent congressional leaders Monday warning that the U.S. coffers for Ukraine were about to run dry.
In the Senate, Schumer is trying to advance the emergency funding legislation but without the border provisions Republicans are demanding. He described the package as crucial to ensuring the future of Ukraine and democracy.
"This is a turning point in Western civilization," Schumer told reporters at a news conference.
Schumer added that Johnson told him in a private meeting that he could not pass the supplemental package through the House without H.R. 2 attached.
IN THE SENATE
The GOP's demands could imperil any legislation that emerges from the Senate, where a bipartisan group is trying to find agreement on a pared-down set of border policy proposals. Republicans in those negotiations have acknowledged they are not insisting on the broad policies included in the House's legislation, creating a schism between the two chambers.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said it was "not rational" to expect the closely divided Senate to pass a bill that didn't gain a single Democratic vote in the House.
"You can't make law like that," Lankford said. "We have to make law."
So far, the Senate negotiations have centered on a proposal to raise the initial threshold for migrants to enter the asylum system, as well as limiting the executive branch's ability to admit migrants through humanitarian parole.
Democrats took a step back from the talks earlier this week, saying that Republicans were unwilling to compromise. Republican senators are making a counter-offer, but still say they will block the funding package if it does not include border security policy they can agree on.
Before today's test vote, Schumer made Republicans what he called a "golden offer": agree to move ahead with the aid package and they could offer any amendment they want to add border security to the package.
But when Schumer brought up the amendment offer in the classified briefing Tuesday afternoon, several Republican senators stood up and stormed out of the meeting, which was with senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. CQ Brown Jr.
"Republicans are just walking out of the briefing because the people there are not willing to actually discuss what it takes to get a deal done," said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.
At one point, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., raised his voice at Schumer, according to a person familiar with the private meeting and granted anonymity to discuss it. Cotton was pushing back against Schumer's claim that Republicans had inserted border security into the debate and arguing Biden had opened the door to policy by including border funding in the package.
In another exchange, Sen. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota, said he repeatedly tried to engage with Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about border security.
As senators departed, they described a tense and angry meeting. Schumer told reporters that a Republican senator had screamed at a general, but declined to say who it was.
"Nobody stabbed anybody -- I'll put it that way -- but it was close," said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is encouraging all GOP senators to vote against advancing the Biden aid package to show they are "serious" in demanding border changes.
"Now is the time to pay attention to our own border in addition to these other important international concerns," he said.
House lawmakers also heard from national security adviser Jake Sullivan about the urgency of providing assistance. Republicans in the House remain deeply skeptical of sending more wartime funding to Ukraine, and some have said they won't support it even if it is paired with hard-line border policy.
The White House has declined to discuss publicly the details of the border negotiations and urged lawmakers to quickly pass Biden's emergency funding request.
Olivia Dalton, the White House principal deputy press secretary, said aboard Air Force One on Tuesday that the president and his administration have been "very clear" about the stakes in Ukraine.
Johnson, a hard-line conservative, voted against security assistance for Ukraine in September, but since becoming House speaker has been more receptive to funding the country's military, warning that Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot be allowed to prevail.
Still, Johnson said he wanted more information from the White House on the strategy for exiting the conflict.
"What is the objective? What is the endgame in Ukraine? How are we going to have proper oversight of the funds?" the House speaker said.
Ukrainian officials are familiar with the challenges of getting assistance through Congress. Republicans have twice refused to include military aid for Ukraine in stopgap spending bills to keep the government funded this autumn.
Zelenskyy's speech was intended to be the cornerstone of a broader lobbying effort in which Ukrainian officials are making direct appeals to lawmakers to put aside their political differences.
In remarks at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, Andriy Yermak, the head of the presidential office of Ukraine, said Tuesday that if Congress fails to approve military assistance for Ukraine swiftly, there is a "very high possibility" that Ukraine will lose the war.
It would be "impossible to continue to liberate, and give the big risk to lose this war," Yermak said, addressing the audience in English.
The message, however, has been somewhat complicated by conflicting assessments from the Biden administration. Some Pentagon officials have pushed back against claims that military assistance to Ukraine is about to run out, pointing to near-weekly shipments of arms and ammunition worth more than $100 million each. They added that they expected to make the remaining $4.8 billion in aid authority last through the winter.
The charged dynamic has lawmakers deeply worried that Congress could fail to pass the funding by the end of the year.
"The world needs to be very concerned about what's happening here," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on Monday night. "Republicans have decided to hold Ukraine funding hostage to a domestic political priority that is amongst the hardest in American politics to solve."
Zelenskyy has repeatedly warned of the risks that dwindling U.S. military assistance would pose while also seeking ways to bolster domestic weapons production. In recent weeks, he has expressed concern that the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip could distract allies and potentially undermine support for Ukraine.
"Our deliveries have decreased," Zelenskyy told reporters on Nov. 16, referring specifically to 155 mm shells, saying "they really slowed down."
He also has worked to send a clear message to the Biden administration that his government is working hard to tackle issues like corruption -- a long-standing issue in Ukraine that some Republicans have pointed to as an argument against further aid.
Information for this article was contributed by Stephen Groves, Lisa Mascaro, Kevin Freking and Seung Min Kim of The Associated Press and by Karoun Demirjian and Marc Santora of The New York Times.