Zelenskyy pitches Congress on Ukraine military aid, but it’s tied to stalled border talks

By: , and - December 12, 2023 1:59 pm

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, center, walks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer as he arrives at the U.S. Capitol to meet with congressional leadership on Dec. 12, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy struggled Tuesday to convince members of Congress to approve billions in additional aid to his country at a crucial moment in the nearly two-year war with Russia.

But the outlook was grim as lawmakers remained deadlocked on another piece of a supplemental spending bill under debate in the Senate that would send funds to Ukraine — major changes in immigration policy at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Zelenskyy huddled behind closed doors in the morning with senators before meeting with House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican. He was scheduled to travel to the White House in the afternoon, where he will meet privately with President Joe Biden before the two hold a joint press conference.

Zelenskyy urged lawmakers to approve additional funding for the U.S. Defense and State departments to send military assistance to his country, which in turn will allow Ukrainian fighters to keep Russian President Vladimir Putin from moving closer to NATO countries allied in Europe and North America.

But Zelenskyy cannot broker a bipartisan agreement on U.S. border policy, the issue that is really holding up aid to Ukraine as well as Israel and Taiwan. Those talks continued Tuesday, though there isn’t enough time to approve any agreement that might be reached before Congress leaves Thursday for a three-week winter break.

Senate leaders speak out

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said after the meeting that he planned to work as long as it takes to get an agreement on U.S. border policy to advance funding for Ukraine.

“Our Ukrainian friends’ cause is just, and if the West continues to stand with them, they can win,” McConnell said.

Referring to Zelenskyy as “inspirational and determined,” McConnell said Ukraine’s military has “defied the world’s expectations” by holding off Russia’s military as well as Putin’s “aggressive, imperialist aspirations.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said following the meeting that he would like Congress to stay in town past Thursday.

“Last night, I got on the phone with Speaker Johnson and urged him to keep the House in session, to give a supplemental a chance to come together,” Schumer said.

“If Republicans are serious about getting something done on the border then why are so many of them in such a hurry to leave for the winter break?” Schumer added. “Has the border simply been an excuse to kill funding for Ukraine?”

Without additional military and humanitarian aid, Schumer said, Russia’s chances of defeating the Ukrainian military would increase, a scenario that would represent “a historic and colossal tragedy.”

“If Russia is victorious, future generations will remember this as a moment of shame for the West, for the United States and for those in the Senate who sought to block it,” Schumer said. “This is a moment when a friend in need called on our help. We must rise to the occasion.”

Johnson said in a statement after his meeting with Zelenskyy that he is supportive of Ukraine’s fight against Russia, but that “our first condition on any national security supplemental spending package is about our own national security first.”

“(W)e needed a transformative change at the border,” Johnson said. “(T)hese are our conditions because these are the conditions of the American people, and we are resolute on that.”

White House request

The Biden administration in October asked Congress to approve more than $105 billion in emergency aid to Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and the U.S. border.

Senate Democrats released a $110.5 billion spending package last week that would have provided funding for all four of those areas. But Republicans blocked the bill from moving forward, insisting the legislation include changes to immigration policy.

Those talks have been stuck for weeks as a bipartisan group of senators attempted to broker an agreement.

The group — headed by Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy and Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford — have so far been unable to settle on a deal that appeals to both conservatives and progressives.

Murphy said Tuesday that negotiations on border security “continue to make progress.”

“We’ve made some proposals that, you know, put us outside of our Democratic comfort zone,” Murphy said. “We need Republicans to stretch, and if they do, we can get there.”

He added that the White House got involved in negotiations over the weekend.

“As we get closer to an agreement, they have to be at the table,” Murphy said of the Biden administration.

Graham calls Murphy ‘very unhelpful’

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he felt Zelenskyy was being used by Democrats in negotiations about border security and that he disagrees that “Ukraine’s losing the war.”

“Senator Murphy has been very unhelpful,” Graham said, referring to earlier comments in which Murphy and Democrats accused Republicans of holding aid to Ukraine hostage if there are no policy changes to the Southern border. “His attitude about what’s going on is off base — we’re not holding the border hostage.”

Graham added he’s not confident that an agreement on border security can be reached by Murphy.

“I have no confidence he’s ever going to get a deal we can live with because he’s worried about selling it to the left,” Graham said.

A major sticking point for Democrats is the push from Republicans to make changes to the asylum system that Democrats argue would set a higher bar for asylum seekers for initial “credible fear of persecution” screenings.

Graham said he is willing to work with Johnson on getting any deal through the GOP-led House.

“(Johnson) will stand up to the anti-Ukraine votes if you give him something to work with,” Graham said. “I will help him do that.”

Graham said he told Zelenskyy that Ukraine funding is in peril because of the Biden administration’s border policies. He added that Zelenskyy has “done everything anybody could ask of you,” and that the snag in border security negotiations is not

Ukraine’s problem.

“You didn’t make this problem,” Graham said of Zelenskyy. “It will affect you, in fact, the whole world. But (the Biden administration’s) policy choices matter.”

Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican, said that any aid to Ukraine is “not going to happen” unless the Southern border is addressed in the supplemental.

In the emergency supplemental, Senate Democrats included $1.42 billion for staff hires for immigration judges, such as clerks, attorneys and interpreters; $5.31 billion for U.S. Customs and Border Protection to expand border security, such as fentanyl detection; and $2.35 billion for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for operational costs, fentanyl detection and enforcement.

“There will be no national security bill … it has to be addressed,” Barrasso said of the border security policies.

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Jennifer Shutt
Jennifer Shutt

Jennifer covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.

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Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.

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Ashley Murray
Ashley Murray

Ashley Murray covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include domestic policy and appropriations.

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