Republicans in Congress are piling pressure on Joe Biden to accept new curbs on immigration in exchange for extra funding for Ukraine, as rising tensions on Capitol Hill risk thwarting the US president’s foreign policy goals.
The White House this week warned that in the absence of approval from lawmakers, US aid to Kyiv would dry up by the end of the year, jeopardising Ukraine’s ability to defend itself and making it easier for Vladimir Putin to “prevail” in his war on the country.
Biden has requested about $60bn in funding for Ukraine as part of a $106bn package that includes additional assistance to Israel and US allies in the Indo-Pacific.
But despite the pleas from Biden and many Democrats, Republicans are demanding big concessions from the White House on policies to curb immigration across the border with Mexico.
“We have to effect real policy change at the border, and that is a necessary condition to anything we do going forward,” Mike Johnson, the Republican House Speaker, told reporters on Tuesday.
The White House also needed to answer a number of crucial questions for any negotiations to proceed, Johnson added.
“What is the objective? What is the end game in Ukraine? How are we going to have proper oversight over the funds, the precious treasure of American taxpayers?”
The Speaker’s hardline stance reflects deepening scepticism about help for Ukraine within the base of the Republican party, but even some of the party’s senators who back aid to Kyiv say Biden needs to give ground on immigration.
“Now is the time to pay attention to our own border in addition to these other important international concerns,” Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, told reporters.
The tougher position of Republican lawmakers came as Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate majority leader, was preparing to hold a vote on the $106bn aid package on Wednesday that appeared doomed to fail.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was planning to address senators during a classified closed-door briefing on Tuesday ahead of the vote, but his appearance was cancelled at the last minute.
Two Ukrainian officials close to Zelenskyy confirmed to the Financial Times that the president did not and would not address US Senators on Tuesday, but did not provide an explanation.
Earlier in the day, Schumer blasted the Republican position.
“Our Republican friends are saying they’ll defend democracy only at a price unacceptable to Democrats, and the price is forcing Congress to accept radical immigration policies that come straight from Donald Trump,” he said.
“It could go down as a major turning point where the west didn’t live up to its responsibilities and things turned away from our democracies and our values and towards autocracy.”
The briefing, which included appearances by senior Biden administration officials, broke up early and in acrimony as lawmakers clashed over the legislation.
“I’m not a big fan of political theatre. What I saw inside that briefing looked like an exercise in political theatre,” Chris Murphy, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, told NBC.
Olivia Dalton, the deputy White House press secretary, told reporters flying with Biden to Massachusetts for a series of re-election fundraisers that the administration still believed “there can be and must be a path forward that delivers on not just our promises to Ukraine but our vital national security interests”.
Despite the cancellation of Zelenskyy’s speech, Andriy Yermak, his chief of staff, as well as Ukraine’s defence minister Rustem Umerov and Speaker of parliament Ruslan Stefanchuk were in Washington on Tuesday to push for support.
Yermak told an audience at the US Institute of Peace that Ukraine was in dire need of more 155mm artillery shells as well as air defence systems and munitions to defend itself from Russian attacks and instil more confidence in Ukrainians and the west.
Yermak added that more air defence aid from the US would allow Ukrainians who fled abroad after Russia’s invasion to return home, the country’s economy to expand, and increase protection for ships carrying foodstuffs from ports in the Odesa region.
Russian forces have launched an offensive around the eastern industrial city of Avdiivka and are attempting to break Ukrainian defences along several other locations along the 600-mile front line.
Umerov said the Ukrainians had also met Republican House members, with whom they discussed “the importance of continuing to support Ukraine in 2024”. Umerov said he noted the importance of strengthening sanctions pressure on Russia, which has increased the production of weapons, especially attack drones.
Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg has also warned that Russia is stockpiling missiles and drones to attack Ukraine’s critical infrastructure in the depths of winter.
The White House and Democrats have said they are open to a bipartisan immigration reform deal that could also help them blunt criticism that they have been too lenient on border policies heading into the 2024 elections.
But if their concessions to Republicans are too drastic, it could drive a wedge within the Democratic party at a time of potentially damaging divisions over Biden’s support for Israel in its war on Hamas.
In a post on X on Tuesday, Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican senator and 2012 Republican presidential nominee, said Biden and the Democrats now had a choice.
“Dems want $106B — GOP wants a closed border. That’s the trade . . . Is an open border more important to Dems than Ukraine and Israel?”
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