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Zelenskyy’s Senate visit doesn’t change border debate

GOP senators emerge unmoved by Ukrainian president's latest presentation

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, center, is escorted by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to a meeting with senators on military aid in the Capitol Tuesday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, center, is escorted by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to a meeting with senators on military aid in the Capitol Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senators left a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Tuesday with no indication that his appearance brought Congress any closer to appropriating billions in additional aid he and President Joe Biden are seeking to aid his country’s war effort.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina went so far as to say the Democrats were “using President Zelenskyy inappropriately” in having him appear in the Mansfield Room Tuesday morning amid a debate over what kind of border security provisions should be included in the sweeping supplemental package that would include the assistance for Ukraine, as well as Israel and Taiwan.

“I told him, you need to thank [Speaker] Mike Johnson for being willing to support a package for Ukraine aid if we can secure the border,” Graham said, noting that he was the final speaker during the bipartisan meeting.

Graham said his message for the Democrats would be that, “This obsession with not addressing border security after three years, not doing anything meaningful, has caught up with the Biden administration. Your policy choices are biting you in the ass.”

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., one of the lead negotiators on the potential border security changes, told reporters “there’s some really serious new policies on the table, policies that are outside of Democratic comfort zone.”

Unlike a security briefing last week that left senators fuming, Murphy described the Zelenskyy meeting as “honest.”

“I think people needed to hear how well the Ukrainian army is doing and what the consequences are,” Murphy said. “I thought Republicans were engaging constructively.”

Holiday recess looms

Democrats in particular said the House and Senate should not adjourn for the holidays without acting on the spending proposals because that would embolden Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, to weigh attacks on NATO allies. Some said an agreement was still possible.

“The president of Ukraine should not have to come back to beg for assistance and support. They have earned it, they deserve it and they need it. More importantly, we should not go home for our holidays without finishing this agreement on border security,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said. “We have made significant offers. Our Republican colleagues simply need to accept them so we can close this deal.”

Speaking after the meeting on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said he spoke by phone with Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, Monday evening to push him to keep the House in session to allow time for an agreement before the end of the year.

“If we abandon Ukraine to the dark forces of autocracy, we will all pay a price. The price won’t be tomorrow, meaning next week. But it will be in the months and years ahead,” Schumer, D-N.Y., said. “Everyone who voted against aid to Ukraine will have to live with it.”

He said Republicans should not be demanding “maximalist, fringe policies” on immigration like those employed by former president Donald Trump.

After a separate meeting with Zelenskyy, Johnson was reprising familiar concerns about requests for congressional oversight and the need for border policy changes.

“What the Biden administration seems to be asking for is billions of additional dollars with no appropriate oversight and no clear strategy to win,” Johnson said. On border security, Johnson called the Senate “MIA” — missing in action.

“The House passed HR 2 six months ago, more than six months ago. It’s been sitting and collecting dust on Chuck Schumer’s desk,” the speaker said. Among other provisions, the House GOP-backed bill that Democrats have called a nonstarter would require the Biden administration to resume construction of a border wall, boost personnel and technology at the border, impose sweeping asylum restrictions on migrants journeying to the southwest border and reinstate migrant family detention.

Biden, who held a campaign fundraiser Tuesday morning, was due to speak with the Ukrainian president later in the afternoon.

Several GOP senators said the political reality was that bolstering security at the U.S.-Mexico border was a priority for their constituents.

“It’s really hard to go back home and tell everybody we’re prepared to defend Ukraine, but we’re not prepared to defend our southern border,” said Sen. Mike Rounds.

Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, said that Zelenskyy expressed that it was a priority to get more American support to bolster air defenses, and that the Ukrainian leader was responsive to concerns about oversight.

“He reaffirmed that they would accept no corruption with regard to the deployment of any American resources whatsoever,” Rounds said. “So, he answered those very, very clearly with no ambiguity whatsoever.”

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor that Zelenskyy was “inspirational and determined” and that U.S. support for Ukraine and Israel was “rock solid.”

Caroline Coudriet and John M. Donnelly contributed to this report.

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