Johnson gets squeezed by Biden, Senate GOP on Ukraine, border

President Biden and congressional leaders in both parties are ramping up pressure on Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) to accept an expected deal on Ukraine funding and border security, warning national security is at risk without action by Congress.

Security experts at a White House meeting Wednesday briefed Johnson and other leaders about the dire situation faced by Ukraine. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan were among those in attendance.

The looming package also includes funding for Israel and the Indo-Pacific region, two other hot spots where U.S. concerns are rising.

Lawmakers say the intent was to highlight that Congress is running out of time to pass an emergency supplemental and that the primary intended audience was Johnson, who has pushed back against the emerging Senate border deal amid pressure from conservatives in his own conference.

The White House and congressional leaders, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are stepping up their engagement with Johnson after he poured water on the border security talks over the weekend.

Johnson on Saturday posted a Fox News summary of the deal, which reported it would include an increase in green cards and allow up to 5,000 migrants a day into the United States.

“Absolutely not,” Johnson wrote above the news graphic.

House Speaker Mike Johnson of La., second from right, flanked by, from left, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas., speaks to reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, following their meeting with President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The Speaker then doubled down on his criticism Wednesday morning, telling reporters: “I don’t think now is the time for comprehensive immigration reform, because we know how complicated that is.”

He called for more time for the talks to play out, and made another pitch for H.R. 2, the Secure the Border Act, which the House passed in May without any Democratic votes.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), however, has called that bill a “non-starter” in the Senate.

Senate leaders are feeling increasingly confident about finalizing a Ukraine funding and border security package in the next few days but acknowledge they don’t know whether it can pass the House.

“I don’t know what the House will do, but what we’re working on is trying to get a package out of the Senate that deals with national security and border security in a credible way,” McConnell said Wednesday.

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McConnell told reporters he expects the national security emergency spending package, which would include border security reforms, to reach the Senate floor next week.

Johnson still sounded skeptical after the White House meeting, raising concerns about the prospect of an open-ended commitment to Ukraine.

“We need the questions answered about the strategy, about the end game,” he said.

He also emphasized that border security is as important as other national security concerns.

“We must insist that the border be the top priority,” he said.

Republican critics of the expected Ukraine-border security deal argue it doesn’t go far enough to stop the flow of hundreds of thousands of migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border.

But administration officials warn waiting longer to pass military aid for Ukraine and Israel will have serious consequences.

They are getting backup from McConnell, who says the United States faces the most serious international situation since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

McConnell is urging GOP colleagues not to focus solely on the border security piece of the deal but look more broadly at the nation’s pressing security needs.

“The rest of the bill is important. We’re getting shot at. The Houthis are shooting at our ships, at commercial ships. We’ve got a war in Israel, a war in Ukraine. I’m sure the Chinese were unhappy with the outcome of the presidential election in Taiwan a few days ago,” he said. “I think it’s time to go ahead with the supplemental, and I’m anticipating it will be before us next week.”

McConnell also pushed back on GOP critics who argue Republicans should take border security into the 2024 election in hopes of passing stronger reforms if Republicans capture the White House and control of Congress.

He warned that Democrats would block border security reforms even in the Senate minority and the time to act is now.

“One of the things I keep reminding my members is if we had a 100-percent Republican government — president, House, Senate — we would probably not get a single Democratic vote” for border security reform, he argued. “This is a unique opportunity to accomplish something in divided government.”

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks at weekly policy luncheon at the Capitol on Tuesday, January 9, 2024. (Allison Robbert)

McConnell’s top deputy, Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), said time is running out to help Ukraine. He said the White House meeting would “create a sense of urgency around getting this done, particularly with regard to Ukraine.”

“There’s a sense at least in the White House right now that time is slipping away,” he said.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), one of several Senate conservatives who have raised concerns about sending more money to Ukraine, said the meeting’s purpose was to “strong-arm” Johnson.

“This is all about pressuring the Speaker. You got three people in agreement — you’ve got three people in agreement — you got Biden, Schumer, McConnell all in agreement. And then you have Johnson. I think clearly this an effort to strong-arm him, just like they did on the [defense bill], just like they have been doing on the budget bill,” Hawley said.

Emerging from the White House, Johnson appeared to soften his earlier demand that the House-passed border security bill be added in its entirety to Ukraine funding.

He said the reforms don’t need to be named “H.R. 2,” though he said the policies need to be meaningful.

Schumer, who also attended the meeting, warned it would be a disaster if Ukraine loses its war with Russia.

“Ukraine is already suffering from a lack of armaments and if Ukraine folds we’re going to be suffering the consequences, not for months, but for years to come,” he said.

Schumer later said there was “tremendous focus on Ukraine” at the White House meeting and that abandoning the war effort would have “consequences for America around the globe that would be nothing short of devastating.”

The Democratic leader, however, said he was optimistic of reaching a deal in the Senate soon.

“For the first time, I’m optimistic. For the first time, I think the chances of getting it done in the Senate are greater than not getting it done,” he said. “This is good news.”

Emily Brooks, Alex Gangitano and Brett Samuels contributed.  

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