Johnson Insists on Sweeping Border Changes in Exchange for Ukraine Aid

Johnson Insists on Sweeping Border Changes in Exchange for Ukraine Aid

Jack Gruber/USA Today

Republican and Democratic lawmakers appear to be moving further apart on a $111 billion supplemental spending package that includes billions in aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, as well as changes in immigration and border policy. Senate Democrats released a version of the package late Tuesday after negotiations on a bipartisan deal stalled.

In a letter to White House budget chief Shalanda Young Tuesday, House Speaker Mike Johnson made it clear that moving forward on Ukraine funding “is dependent upon enactment of transformative change to our nation’s border security laws.”

At a press conference Tuesday morning, Johnson underlined his approach. “The battle is for the border,” he said. “We do that first as a top priority, and we’ll take care of these other obligations.”

Johnson portrayed the situation at the border in near-apocalyptic terms. “The open U.S. border is an unconscionable and unsustainable catastrophe, and we have a moral responsibility to insist this madness stops immediately,” he wrote to Young, adding that he is waiting for the Biden administration “to meaningfully engage” on the subject.

Johnson noted that the House has already passed a bill, H.R. 2, that defines the major changes in border policy Republicans want to see. Democrats have rejected that legislation, raising serious questions about how much of the bill could make it into a bipartisan agreement.

Johnson also demanded that the Biden administration provide a clear statement of its strategy and objectives in Ukraine, and “transparency and accountability for U.S. taxpayer dollars invested there.”

In a meeting with his caucus, Johnson reportedly said he is willing to take extreme measures in his effort to push through sweeping changes in border policy, describing the issue as a “hill to die on” for his fellow Republicans.

An influential conservative group released a letter Tuesday offering support to Johnson while calling on him to reject the multi-part Biden aid package. Heritage Action for America, a right-wing advocacy group, said that funding for Ukraine should be considered on its own and “legitimately paid for” rather than coming through an emergency spending package. “Please do not undermine the gains that have been made on behalf of the American people by substituting one corrupt, unaffordable end-of-year deal for another,” Heritage Action President Kevin Roberts wrote.

Zelensky cancels: Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky had been scheduled to speak to senators on Tuesday via video call as part of a last-ditch effort to convince lawmakers to approve more aid, but the event was canceled as opposition to the supplemental package among Republicans in both chambers gathered steam. “Something happened at the last minute,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

Schumer, who described continued support for Ukraine as “a turning point in Western civilization,” plans to hold a procedural vote on Wednesday on the still-developing Ukraine aid package, but there are signs that the vote could fail as Republicans line up against it in hopes of gaining leverage on border policy. “I hope all of our members vote no,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said.

Some senators said a failed vote could help negotiations move forward after days of going nowhere. “Sometimes a failed cloture vote is just a failed cloture vote, and tomorrow we are going to fail to pass it,” Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado said. “And then people are going to have to sharpen their pencils and spend the next week negotiating a deal that keeps America's commitment not just to Ukraine, but to democracies around the world.”

Still, some lawmakers were more pessimistic as the risk of failure rises. “The world needs to be very concerned about what’s happening here,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said Monday night. “Republicans have decided to hold Ukraine funding hostage to a domestic political priority that is amongst the hardest in American politics to solve.”

The bottom line: There is a real and growing chance that the Ukraine aid package could fail. Even if Senate negotiators can make a deal that includes some reforms in immigration policy, much depends on the willingness of House Republicans to accept any bipartisan compromise on the border.