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Zelenskyy is making a last-ditch push to get more U.S. weapons and aid for Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and others in Congress to ask for more aid for his country's war against Russia.
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and others in Congress to ask for more aid for his country's war against Russia.

Updated December 12, 2023 at 5:52 PM ET

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was in Washington on Tuesday to make a last-ditch push to convince Congress to approve more U.S. weapons and aid for his country in order to push back against Russia's invasion.

Zelenskyy met first with senators and top congressional leaders before heading to the White House for a meeting and press conference with President Biden.

The visit came at a critical moment. The White House says it will run out of money to support Ukraine by the end of the month. Biden has asked Congress for more than $60 billion in aid for Ukraine but has so far been rebuffed. Republican support has waned as the war has dragged on and they're tying support for additional funding to changes to border security. Congress is supposed to leave for the holidays in a matter of days.

Sitting with Zelenskyy in the Oval Office, Biden told reporters that Congress would "give Putin the greatest Christmas gift they could possibly give him" if the aid package fails to pass.

"We can't and won't let him succeed," he told Zelenskyy. "I don't want you giving up hope."

Until today, Biden has insisted the United States would be with Ukraine "as long as it takes." But on Tuesday, his message shifted to saying that the U.S. will be with Ukraine "as long as we can."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and President Biden met in the Oval Office to discuss the war and the push to have Congress approve another aid package.
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and President Biden met in the Oval Office to discuss the war and the push to have Congress approve another aid package.

Zelenskyy met with Senate lawmakers and House leaders, including Speaker Mike Johnson

After addressing senators at the Capitol, Zelenskyy met with House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., and Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. — even as lawmakers warned they remain far from a deal on security spending.

Biden included his funding request for Ukraine as part of a larger request for more than $105 billion in supplemental national security funding that also includes aid for Israel, for countering China in the Indo-Pacific and for beefing up security at the U.S. southern border.

Johnson told reporters after the meeting that he has asked the White House for clarity on the strategy for Ukraine's victory and detail on the oversight that will be applied to any money provided to the country. Johnson said the future of funding for Ukraine is up to the White House and Senate.

"We needed clarity on what we're doing in Ukraine and how we'll have proper oversight of the spending of precious taxpayer dollars," Johnson said. "And we needed a transformative change at the border. Thus far, we've gotten neither."

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Johnson has insisted any security spending should be tied to a hardline immigration bill that passed the House this year. That legislation has zero support from Democrats, setting up a standoff over policy that could be insurmountable.

At the late afternoon press conference with Zelenskyy at the White House, Biden said he was willing to work toward bipartisan compromise on changes to border policy.

"Compromise is how democracy works," he told reporters at the joint press conference with Zelenskyy. But he criticized Republicans in Congress for holding Ukraine aid "hostage" for those changes.

"Not making promises – but hopeful we can get there. I think we can," Biden said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden hold a news conference at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden hold a news conference at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

Republicans want big concessions on immigration

Many Republican lawmakers have said they will not vote for any more money for Ukraine unless it is attached to significant border policy measures. Immigration is a top concern for Republican voters ahead of the 2024 presidential election, and the number of migrants crossing the southern U.S. border is at an all-time high.

"If [Democrats] really think this is such a hinge point in history that it's so vital to provide Ukraine $60 billion worth of aid, they have to look at the clear and present danger of our unsecure border, our open border, and fix that," Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., said after the Senate meeting.

A bipartisan group of senators has been negotiating for weeks, looking to reach a compromise on tougher border policies, but talks broke down last week with Republicans saying Democrats were not taking their demands seriously.

Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, the lead Democratic negotiator in the talks, told reporters that "there are some really serious new policies on the table – policies that are outside of the Democratic comfort zone."

"We've stretched, and the Republicans now need to stretch as well," Murphy said. He said he hopes Congress stays in session until an agreement is reached, adding he believes "we can finish this in the Senate and get a bill to the House before Christmas."

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., expressed frustration at the lack of progress being made in the border talks.

"It's sort of the law of holes. When you're in one, you stop digging. You try a new direction.," Kennedy said. He suggested that Biden should be more involved in the negotiations, as well as Senate party leaders Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell.

Still, Kennedy told reporters he believes the chamber will reach an agreement on a supplemental funding package that includes Ukraine aid and "a meaningful step to stem the tide at the border."

"I believe we'll get there, and I believe it's very possible to get there in the next two weeks. But we're not going to get there doing what we're doing right now," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Lexie Schapitl is a production assistant with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces and digital content. She also reports from the field and assists with production of the NPR Politics Podcast.