Speaker rebuffs Biden on push for Ukraine aid

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., (center) with Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio (left) and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., speaks to reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Wednesday after their meeting with President Joe Biden.
(AP/Susan Walsh)
House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., (center) with Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio (left) and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., speaks to reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Wednesday after their meeting with President Joe Biden. (AP/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON -- 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.

But House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., 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 House 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 House 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."

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.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., also speaking to reporters after the meeting, emphasized Biden's willingness to compromise and that any effort in a divided Congress must be bipartisan. House Republicans have called for passage of a hardline border security measure in exchange for Ukraine aid, though no Democrats support it. After the meeting, Johnson noted that GOP lawmakers were not insisting on a "particular name of a piece of legislation."

"There was tremendous focus on Ukraine and an understanding that if we don't come to Ukraine's aid, that the consequences for America around the globe would be nothing short of devastating," Schumer said following the meeting. The Senate Democratic leader said there was "large agreement" among attendees that Congress needed to act on both Ukraine and the U.S. southern border.

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.

Following the meeting, Schumer 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 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.


Ahead of the meeting, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced the package could be ready for a vote as soon as next week, although negotiations are ongoing. An optimistic-feeling 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.

By a 68-13 vote on Tuesday, senators voted to take up the legislation, which would temporarily extend funding for some federal agencies until March 1 and for others through March 8. It would keep spending levels flat while lawmakers and aides hammer out the details of a $1.66 trillion deal reached between Johnson and Democrats.

The lopsided vote reflected broad backing in the Senate for a measure that faces a much more complicated path in the House, where far-right Republicans are in revolt over the spending agreement and refusing to back it. Their opposition means that Johnson is all but certain to be forced once again to turn to Democrats for help in passing crucial spending legislation, in a vote expected later this week.

"The key to finishing our work this week will be bipartisan cooperation in both chambers," said Schumer. "You can't pass these bills without support from Republicans and Democrats in both the House and the Senate."

He warned that "a small group of hard-right extremists seem dead set on making the shutdown a reality."

It was unclear whether conservatives in the Senate who are opposed to the deal would try to slow its consideration. McConnell, the minority leader, signaled his support for the bill.

"Shutting down the government -- even part of it -- would interrupt this important progress" of passing the 12 individual spending bills that fund the government, he said.

In the House, Republicans' razor-thin majority and hard-line members' resistance to the legislation mean that Johnson will be unable to pass it without solid Democratic backing, along with help from mainstream Republicans.

Members of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus have balked at the spending deal, saying they would prefer a shutdown to a funding bill that keeps spending flat and imposes no new policies cracking down on migration at the U.S. border with Mexico.

"If the border is not secured, this government does not deserve to be funded," Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., said on Fox News on Sunday. "We will fund the Department of Defense, we'll pay our troops, we'll take care of our veterans and VA, we'll even make sure our border agents are paid to have some semblance of security. But the rest of this government doesn't deserve money if our border continues to be open the way that it is."


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.

Still, reflecting the views of his conference, Johnson 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 House 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 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.

Information for this article was contributed by Seung Min Kim, Lisa Mascaro, Josh Boak, Zeke Miller, Kevin Freking, Farnoush Amiri and Mary Clare Jalonick of The Associated Press and by Catie Edmondson of The New York Times.

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