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

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 then traveled to the White House in the afternoon, where he met privately with President Joe Biden before the two held a joint press conference.

Biden told Zelenskyy before their meeting that he didn’t want him to give up hope, and urged Congress to “do the right thing.”

During the press conference, Biden said he believes there’s “strong bipartisan political support for Ukraine,” arguing the Republicans who oppose additional aid “don’t speak for the majority.”

Biden said he didn’t want to make promises, but said he was “hopeful” that Congress would approve another aid package, though he didn’t say how soon that would be.

“The world is watching what we do,” Biden said. “It would send a horrible message to aggressors and allies if we walked away at this time. And it would hurt our national security.”

Zelenskyy said during the joint press conference at the White House that other European countries are “safe from Russian aggression” as long as Ukrainian troops are able to fight its military.

“Ukraine can now tackle the Russian dictatorship, so our children and other nations won’t have to shed their blood and sacrifice their lives defending against Russian aggression,” Zelenskyy said.

Ukraine’s military has made “significant progress” since the beginning of the war, taking back 50% of the territory that Russia claimed following its February 2022 invasion, he said.

Zelenskyy said there is a “clear plan” for military action in 2024, but declined to get into specifics.

During his visit to Capitol Hill earlier in the day, 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 morning 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.”

McConnell said later Tuesday during a press conference that it would be “practically impossible” to move an agreement on border security through both chambers of Congress this year if those talks yield a deal.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said following the morning 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.

Murphy, Lankford and independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona met with White House staffers Tuesday along with U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

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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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F12%2F12%2Fzelenskyy-pitches-congress-on-ukraine-military-aid-but-its-tied-to-stalled-border-talks%2F by Jennifer Shutt

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