Biden brings congressional leaders to White House at pivotal time for Ukraine and U.S border deal

President Joe Biden answers a reporter's question as he walks from Marine One upon arrival on the South Lawn of the White House, Dec. 20, 2023, in Washington.

Alex Brandon / Alex Brandon

President Joe Biden will convene top congressional leaders Wednesday at the White House pressing for his $110 billion national security package at a pivotal time as senators narrow on a landmark immigration deal that could unlock the stalled aid to Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies.

The sit down with Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate leaders, including the chairmen of influential national security committees, could make or break the political trade-off that has been simmering for weeks as lawmakers have failed, so far, to reach a compromise over Biden’s broader aid package.

Ahead of the meeting, Johnson, in a first big test of his new speakership, said he needs to see “transformative” changes to restrict the record number of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of any deal for the overseas wars.

“I will tell the President that I’ve been seeing it consistently since the moment I was handed the gavel,” said Johnson, R-La.

“The border is a catastrophe. It has to be addressed. And you’re gonna see House Republicans standing and fighting on that Hill,” he said.

Biden is convening the lawmakers at the start of an election year when border security and the wars abroad are punctuating the race for the White House with control of the presidency and Congress are all at stake.

It comes as Congress is about to quickly approve temporary funding to avoid a government shutdown, postponing the annual spending battles, but as the supplemental aid package sits undone during the immigration and border talks.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that the lawmakers — including Johnson, House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., — were invited to meet with Biden “to discuss the critical importance of his national security supplemental requests.”

Biden, a longtime leader in U.S. foreign policy, finds himself confronting a new generation of Republican lawmakers who have little interest in engaging abroad or supporting vast American military aid or actions around the world.

Led by Donald Trump, GOP’s front-runner for the presidential nomination, a growing number of the Republicans in Congress are particularly hostile to helping Ukraine fight Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who along with U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met this week with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy in Davos, said Washington is determined to keep supporting Ukraine, and “we’re working very closely with Congress in order to do that.”

Johnson, since taking the gavel in October, signaled he personally believes in supporting Ukraine as it works to expel Russia. He met privately with Zelenskyy during the Ukrainian president’s whirlwind tour of Washington last month seeking aid before the year-end holidays.

But the speaker leads an ambivalent House GOP majority that wants to extract its own priorities on the U.S.-Mexico border in exchange for any overseas support.

The speaker has insisted any border security deal must align with the House-passed strict border security bill. He told lawmakers in a private meeting over the weekend that they could probably get their priorities enacted with a Republican president, though the speaker did not mean that to preclude not taking action now, said a Republican leadership aide familiar with the call.

But senators, even fellow Republicans, say the House approach is a nonstarter that would never find the bipartisan backing in both chambers needed for approval.

Instead, a core group of senators led by Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma has been meeting privately for weeks with Biden’s top advisers, including Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, to develop a border security package that could actually be signed into law.

Lankford told reporters late Tuesday that he hopes to prepare bill text as negotiations try to wrap up soon.

McConnell told GOP senators privately last week they should take the deal Lankford is producing, according to a person granted anonymity to discuss the closed meeting.

“This is a unique moment in time,” said the No. 2 Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.

“It’s an opportunity to get some really conservative border policy that we haven’t been able to get for 40 years,” he said. “And so we’ll see. I mean, it may or may not happen, but I think you got to take a run at it.”

The broader security package includes about $60 billion for Ukraine, which is mainly used to purchase U.S. weaponry to fight the war and to shore up its own government operations, along with some $14.5 billion for Israel, about $14 billion for border security and additional funds for other security needs.