U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, center, speaks to reporters after a White House meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, about supplemental aid for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and U.S. border security. At left is Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, and at right is Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas. (Photo by Ashley Murray/States Newsroom)
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s White House gathering with lawmakers to find a compromise on foreign aid and immigration was “productive,” U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson said Wednesday, but a deal has still not been reached.
Biden hosted congressional leaders and other lawmakers to discuss the administration’s stalled $106 billion national security supplemental request, which includes aid for Ukraine and Israel.
Senate Republicans have refused to support the White House request, which was sent to Capitol Hill in October, unless new policies curbing asylum and parole are attached. And House GOP leadership has insisted changes resemble their border security bill dubbed H.R. 2, which passed in the lower chamber on a party-line vote in May.
“We understand that there’s concern about the safety, security, sovereignty of Ukraine, but the American people have those same concerns about our own domestic sovereignty and our safety and our security,” Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, said after the meeting.
Republican lawmakers have been focused on immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border as arrivals have increased, and as the party’s 2024 presidential front-runner, former President Donald Trump, campaigns on the issue, often using terms like “invasion.”
More than a dozen key committee chairs and ranking members joined House and Senate leaders Wednesday in talks with the administration’s top national security and budget officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and Office of Management Budget Director Shalanda Young.
Parts of the meeting were classified, according to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
Biden used the meeting to underscore “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,” according to a readout of the discussion provided by the White House.
“The President 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 readout stated.
Biden also told lawmakers “we must act now to address challenges at the border.”
The president is “encouraged” by bipartisan negotiations in the Senate and urged Congress to “swiftly” pass his full request, according to the readout.
‘We need the questions answered’
Johnson, speaking to reporters outside the White House after the meeting, said he spoke to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in December and heard from the leader that “the necessary ingredient is the proper weapons systems that they need.”
“There are certain things that are needed to ensure that they can prevail,” Johnson continued. “We need the questions answered about the strategy, about the endgame, and about the accountability for the precious treasure of the American people.”
Still, he said, “we must insist that the border be the top priority. I think we have some consensus around that table. Everyone understands the urgency of that.”
This is a unique opportunity to accomplish something in divided government that wouldn’t be there under unified (Republican) government.
– Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaking outside the White House shortly after Johnson, described a “very positive meeting” and a “large amount of agreement around the table that we must do Ukraine, and we must do border.”
Schumer said both parties agreed that helping Ukraine is “essential” and that a loss for that nation “would be nothing short of devastating.”
“The only way we will do border and Ukraine, or even either of them, is (by being) bipartisan,” said Schumer, a New York Democrat. “You cannot – cannot – do things with one party in a divided Congress. And so anyone who says, any party that says ‘do it my way or no way,’ we’re not going to get anything done.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking back at the Capitol after the meeting, said he thought it was a “good idea” to get both Democratic and Republican lawmakers together.
“We had a really constructive discussion about the supplemental, which we anticipate will be on the floor next week,” McConnell said. “We’ve been talking about this for a very long time. It’s time to try to act.”
McConnell said he believes negotiators are “close” to brokering a bipartisan agreement on border security and immigration policy changes.
Such a deal would allow the Senate to move forward with the emergency spending package that includes aid for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and U.S. border enforcement agencies.
“It’s not going to get better in my opinion until you actually say, ‘We’re going to it next week.’ And I think that’s the view of the majority leader,” McConnell said.
Schumer didn’t commit to putting the bill on the floor for a vote next week, but said once there is an agreement the body will move “very quickly.”
“I am more optimistic than ever before that we can come to an agreement. I put the chances a little bit greater than half now,” he said after the meeting.
Negotiations over border security are being headed by Sen. James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut and Kyrsten Sinema, independent of Arizona. The trio has been working to strike a deal with the White House since before Christmas.
Before leaving for the meeting, McConnell brushed aside disparaging comments from House GOP leaders about Senate negotiations on border and immigration policy, noting that if Republicans controlled the government, they likely wouldn’t get a single Democratic vote for the types of policies being discussed.
“This is a unique opportunity to accomplish something in divided government that wouldn’t be there under unified (Republican) government,” McConnell said. “So we’re hoping to get a credible border package.”
McConnell later noted during that press conference whatever the Senate eventually passes could actually garner Biden’s signature. He also suggested that the two chambers could go to conference to reconcile their differences.
Murphy said during a press conference before the White House meeting that while he’s not yet optimistic about the negotiations, he agrees with Schumer “that we are closer than we have ever been before.”
“Our goal is to give the executive branch more tools to better manage the border while living up to our values as a nation of immigrants,” Murphy said. “This is the most complicated area of American statute, so it’s not surprising that it’s taking us some time to work out the final few issues and get those resolved into text.”
Ahead of the meeting with Biden, Johnson said that he would continue to seek “answers to critical questions” about Ukraine.
“… But before we even talk about Ukraine, I am going to tell the president what I’m telling all of you and we’ve told the American people: Border, border, border. We have to take care of our own house. We have to secure our own border before we talk about doing anything else,” Johnson told reporters during the House Republicans’ weekly press conference.
When asked to respond to Johnson’s comments, White House National Security Council spokesman Adm. John Kirby said, “Today’s meeting is about Ukraine. That’s what we’re going to focus on in that discussion.”
“I would remind (Johnson) that since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine in February ‘22 we have provided multiple classified and unclassified briefings to members of Congress,” Kirby also said.
The U.S. provided its latest aid package to Ukraine in late December, and the administration said that was the final assistance available until Congress approves new aid.
Kirby said Ukraine continues to go through its stockpiles of artillery shells and rockets “at a pretty advanced clip.”
The White House believes negotiations on the deal are “headed in the right direction,” Jean-Pierre said.
When asked about White House negotiations with Senate and House Republicans, Jean-Pierre said House Republicans “have gotten in the way when it comes to border security.”
“We want to work with them, but they’ve been very clear where they stand,” she said during the daily press briefing.
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