President Joe Biden hosted congressional leaders and the top lawmakers on key national security committees Wednesday as the White House and House Republicans continue to talk past each other on what the president has called an urgent funding request.
Speaker Mike Johnson, who previously met in person with the president shortly after taking office in October and spoke by phone with Biden about border issues about a week ago, has remained focused on those issues — but the White House points to negotiations with Senate Republicans led by James Lankford, R-Okla., as the path to progress. The speaker has not been at the table for those discussions.
And Biden may have made an impassioned plea to help Ukraine in the White House meeting on Wednesday, but afterward it seemed plain that the supplemental spending bill’s legislative future still hinges, as it has for weeks, on a separate partisan row over managing a steady flow of immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I told the president what I had been saying for many months, and that is we must change at the border, substantive policy change,” Johnson, R-La., said outside the West Wing.
“There was remarkable consensus in that room. Just about every person in that room talked about the importance of aiding Ukraine. And everyone in the room also talked about that we had to do something about the border. It’s broken and President Biden said he knows that and wants to really make significant change on the border,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said at the Capitol after the meeting.
Ahead of the meeting, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stressed that it was not going to be a one-on-one session.
“He’s not the only congressperson in the room, he’s not,” Jean-Pierre said of Johnson. “The president has been very clear he wants to talk about Ukraine and the urgency of making sure we continue that assistance to Ukraine — what that means, not just for the broader world, national security, but also for us. And so Speaker Johnson’s not going to be the only person in the room.
“He’s willing to hear what these congressional members want to talk about, but the purpose of this meeting is to talk about Ukraine,” she said.
Johnson, for his part, told reporters Wednesday that House Republicans still have “critical questions” over ongoing aid for Kyiv, including on the strategy there and accountability for the billions of dollars in U.S. assistance to that country.
“We have to take care of our own house, we have to secure our own border before we talk about doing anything else,” Johnson said earlier Wednesday.
Senators from both parties and administration officials have been engaged in talks to reach a deal on the border question. But an agreement remained out of reach Wednesday.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, told reporters Wednesday that just one issue remains in dispute in those talks: how to rein in the president’s powers to grant humanitarian parole. This long-standing authority permits the U.S. government to let people into the country for predetermined periods of time by essentially bypassing the regular immigration process.
With the parole issue still unresolved, the border talks that are key to the future of any supplemental spending bill still seemed stuck even after the high-profile White House confab.
Addressing the matter in remarks to the press hours before the White House meeting, Johnson insisted that the outcome of the negotiations has to align with legislation known as HR 2 that the House passed last year with only Republican votes. That bill is anathema to Democrats who control the Senate, so it is not likely to be considered, let alone pass.
If the border talks yield a product closer to Johnson’s preferred policies, it will alienate moderates and progressives. But if it doesn’t, it will put off ultraconservative House Republicans.
The struggle in Congress is mainly an intra-GOP fight. On one side is Johnson and the hard-right House Freedom Caucus. On the other side are the GOP internationalists in the Senate, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. They are working toward a compromise to get something accomplished on the border and, in the bargain, increase the odds Ukraine can survive as a nation and Israel can get more U.S.-built weapons.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said at the Capitol after the meeting that he understood the Senate was not likely to accept all pieces of the House bill, but said restoring the “remain in Mexico” policy for migrants would be “a significant policy change that would get to the heart of the problem.”
Asked if House Republicans would vote for a Senate deal that included that language, McCaul sidestepped the question. But he said the measure “would be a significant policy change.”
“Look, of course we’re making the pitch for all of HR 2,” he added. “I also live in a realistic world; I don’t think the Senate’s going to adopt every provision, but they looked at a lot of the significant policy changes in there, I think that would move the dial significantly.”
McCaul said Biden acknowledged that “the border’s broken” and he recognized the need for “significant changes.” But Biden stopped short of making any specific policy commitments.
“There’s one camp that wanted to throw a bunch of money down there. I said, ‘That’s not what we’re really asking for.’ We want significant policy changes that will stop the magnet, the pull effect, that’s happening down there right now,” McCaul said.
The meeting with Biden was not open to the media. Afterward, the White House released a statement saying Biden “underscored the importance of Congress ensuring Ukraine has the resources it needs” and the need to “act now to address the challenges at the border.”
“He is encouraged by the progress being made in the bipartisan negotiations happening in the Senate. He expressed his commitment to reaching a bipartisan agreement on border policy,” the statement said.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby reiterated Wednesday that the administration does not have the funds to send Ukraine more weapons without new appropriations.
“It’s not as if the war stopped, just because our aid stopped,” Kirby said. “They continue to come under artillery shell, air attacks, ballistic and cruise missile, as well as drone attacks, from the Russians.”
Schumer said earlier that the purpose of the White House gathering was “to make it clear that things are changing in Ukraine for the worse and that if we don’t get aid to them quickly, the whole thing could turn around and be irretrievable.”
McConnell has said he wants to help Ukraine, but it can’t happen without some kind of border deal.
“I think Sen. Lankford would say, and I believe he’s said to you all that we’re getting very close to coming up with a border proposal he thinks makes a positive difference,” McConnell said at the Capitol after the White House meeting. He added that “regardless of party” the attendees at the White House meeting understood the numerous security challenges.
McConnell earlier in the day said Congress has a rare opportunity right now not only to strengthen U.S. and global security via the supplemental but also to enact border controls that have eluded Congress for some 30 years. If Republicans were in charge of the White House, Senate and House, McConnell said, they would not have as good a chance as they do now, because Democrats would oppose changes under that scenario.
“So this is a unique opportunity to accomplish something in divided government that wouldn’t be there under unified government,” he said.
John M. Donnelly Caroline Coudriet, Briana Reilly and Mark Satter contributed to this report.