GOP blocks Ukraine aid; Biden: Let’s talk

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on funding for Ukraine from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on funding for Ukraine from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON -- As Senate Republicans blocked the advance of tens of billions of dollars in military and economic assistance for Ukraine on Wednesday, President Joe Biden berated their tactics as "stunning" and dangerous. Yet he also signaled an openness to what GOP lawmakers ultimately want: border policy changes.

Biden at the White House warned of dire consequences for Kyiv -- and a "gift" to Russia's Vladimir Putin -- if Congress fails to pass a $110 billion package of wartime funding for Ukraine and Israel as well as other national security priorities. Hours later, Senate Republicans defiantly voted to stop the package from advancing, something that they had threatened to do all week.

"This cannot wait," Biden said in a televised statement at the White House before the vote. "Congress needs to pass supplemental funding for Ukraine before they break for the holiday recess. Simple as that. Frankly, I think it's stunning that we've gotten to this point in the first place. Republicans in Congress are willing to give Putin the greatest gift he can hope for and abandon our global leadership."

He faulted Republicans for holding the Ukraine aid hostage to the border fight. "Republicans think they can get everything they want without any bipartisan compromise," Biden said. "That's not the answer. That's not the answer. And now they're willing to literally kneecap Ukraine on the battlefield and endanger our national security in the process."

He added: "I'm willing to make significant compromises on the border. We need to fix the broken border system. It is broken. And thus far I've gotten no response."

The southern border has been a major liability for Biden, who has been unable to stem the tide of crossings. Large numbers of people have been surging toward the border each day, driven by historic migration across the hemisphere from Venezuela, Haiti, Honduras and other countries facing political instability, gang violence and natural disasters.

Republicans have accused Biden and the Democrats of trying to steamroll them on immigration by using the Ukraine aid as justification. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., got into a testy exchange with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, during Tuesday's meeting, and he later sent a fundraising email to supporters declaring he would not back down.

"I will continue holding Schumer, and the rest of the Democrats, to account for their lies, incompetence, and unwillingness to secure our border," he wrote, saying that it was "important that we stay on offense."

SHORT ON TIME

Sen. James Lankford, the Oklahoma Republican who has been leading Senate negotiations over border policy, was encouraged by what he heard, saying it seemed like the president is "ready to be able to sit down and talk."

Senators of both parties acknowledged they will need to move quickly if a deal is to be struck. Congress is scheduled to be in Washington for just a handful more days before the end of the year. The White House, meanwhile, has sounded the alarm about what would happen if they don't approve more funding soon, saying Ukraine's military would be stalled, or even overrun.

"When deadlines come, everybody's undivided attention is there and we realize: 'OK. Now it's time to actually solve this,'" Lankford said.

Democrats involved in the negotiations also said a direct hand from the president, as well as from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, could be helpful.

"This kind of thorny, difficult problem is exactly what Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell have worked on before. And we could use their help and their leadership on this," said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., another negotiator.

So far, McConnell, while an ardent supporter of Ukraine aid, has sided with Republicans who are holding firm against the security package unless it includes changes to America's border policies. Every Republican voted against it advancing Wednesday evening.

Schumer called the failed test vote "a sad night in the history of the Senate and our country." He urged Republicans to present a border proposal that is "serious, instead of the extreme policies they have presented thus far."

Republican negotiators were expected to send a new proposal to Democrats after the failed vote.

The Senate was supposed to be the easier place for the White House to win support for Ukraine since Republicans led by McConnell by and large back U.S. aid for Ukraine, as opposed to many of their House Republican counterparts. The White House had hoped a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate would pressure the newly installed House speaker, Mike Johnson, who has lately expressed support for Ukraine but previously voted against aid.

Biden made his remarks Wednesday shortly after a video call with other leaders of the Group of 7 major industrial powers and framed the issue as a matter of American credibility and leadership on the world stage.

Without more aid for Ukraine, he warned, other allies may back off their own commitments. "If we walk away, how many of our European friends are going to continue to fund, and at what rates are they going to continue to fund?" he asked.

The president even raised the prospect that an emboldened Putin would pose a threat to NATO allies, requiring the United States to come to their assistance with troops on the ground. "If Putin takes Ukraine, he won't stop there," Biden said. "It's important to see the long run here. He's going to keep going. He's made that pretty clear.

"If he keeps going, and then he attacks a NATO ally" to which the United States is bound by treaty to help, "then we'll have something that we don't seek and that we don't have today -- American troops fighting Russian troops," Biden said.

"Make no mistake," he added. "Today's vote is going to be long remembered, and history's going to judge harshly those who turn their back on freedom's cause. We can't let Putin win. I'll say it again: We can't let Putin win."

BORDER BATTLE

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who has been involved in the negotiations, said the Republicans' hard-charging bargain left little room for agreement and he remained skeptical that a deal can be struck.

"They have to figure out whether they want to negotiate or whether they want to make take-it-or-leave-it demands," Murphy said.

Republicans argue the record numbers of migrants crossing the southern border pose a security threat because border authorities cannot adequately screen them. They also say they cannot justify to their constituents sending billions of dollars to other countries while failing to address the border at home.

So far, senators have found agreement on raising the initial standard for migrants to enter the asylum system. But they've been at odds over placing limitations on humanitarian parole, a program that allows the executive branch to temporarily admit migrants without action from Congress.

But Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said the Senate talks were "never going to be able to negotiate the kind of meaningful substantive policy changes" that Republicans want. He called Biden's remarks "positive" and said the negotiations should next include the president, McConnell and Johnson.

The president's willingness to directly engage on the issue comes at a political risk. Immigrant advocates and some Democratic senators have sounded alarm about curtailing the asylum system.

Sen. Alex Padilla, a California Democrat who led a statement with 10 other senators last month calling for an increase in legal immigration to be included in negotiations, said he would be watching closely what Biden agrees to on border security.

"Devil's in the details," Padilla said, adding that the direction of the Senate talks have been "concerning from day one."

Even if the president and senators somehow find a way forward on border security, any agreement would face significant obstacles in the House. Hard-line conservatives who control the chamber have vowed to block it unless it tacks to a broad set of forceful border and immigration policies.

Johnson, who as speaker has already expressed deep skepticism of funding for Ukraine, has signaled he won't support the aid package if it does not adhere to H.R. 2, a bill that would remake the U.S. immigration system with conservative priorities.

"The American people deserve nothing less," Johnson said in a statement.

Information for this article was contributed by Zeke Miller, Aamer Madhani, Stephen Groves and Lolita C. Baldor of The Associated Press and Peter Baker of The New York Times.

  photo  President Joe Biden delivers remarks on funding for Ukraine from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
 
 
  photo  President Joe Biden delivers remarks on funding for Ukraine from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
 
 
  photo  President Joe Biden delivers remarks on funding for Ukraine from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
 
 
  photo  President Joe Biden delivers remarks on funding for Ukraine from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
 
 
  photo  President Joe Biden delivers remarks on funding for Ukraine from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
 
 
  photo  President Joe Biden delivers remarks on funding for Ukraine from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
 
 
  photo  President Joe Biden delivers remarks on funding for Ukraine from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)