Senators began blaming each other Tuesday for the looming potential failure to provide additional aid to Ukraine as fragile negotiations over a national security package continued to break down amid Republican demands for far-reaching immigration restrictions.
“If funding for Ukraine fails, the failure will solely be on the Republican Party,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, blasting the GOP for demanding border security changes to support Ukraine funding.
At least a dozen Republicans walked out of a classified briefing led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other Biden officials on the status of Ukraine’s war effort Tuesday afternoon, shrugging off a presentation that was meant to pressure them to back the aid. Some Republican senators, led by Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.), confronted Schumer for not providing someone to brief them on border security in addition to Ukraine, before walking out in protest.
“Their lack of preparedness to discuss and their clear apprehension to utter a word as it pertains to border security policy was not just an oversight, it was intentional. It was a political decision,” Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) said after the briefing.
The fate of the $110.5 billion national security package — which includes aid to Ukraine as it fends off a Russian invasion, Israel in its war in Gaza as well as humanitarian funds and border aid — has looked dim since Republicans began demanding politically fraught changes to asylum and other immigration policies in exchange for Ukraine funding last month.
As those negotiations stalled, Schumer said he would hold a procedural vote on the package anyway on Wednesday afternoon, and offered Republicans an amendment to the bill that they could craft themselves on immigration if they agreed to proceed to a vote.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), however, said he was urging Republicans to vote against moving on the national security package, to “make a point” that his conference insists on “meaningful” changes to border policy in exchange for their votes. McConnell has been one of the most vocal Republican supporters of Ukraine, arguing that abandoning the nation would empower Vladimir Putin and other foes of the United States.
House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has told the Senate he cannot pass Ukraine aid without significant border policy changes and said he will repeat that fact until he’s “blue in the face.”
“The battle is for the border,” he said. “We do that first as a top priority, and we’ll take care of things.” Meanwhile, some of the House’s harder-right members have said they would need their sweeping immigration bill to pass the Senate to consider the Ukraine funding.
That state of play had many supporters of Ukraine’s fight against Russia feeling glum.
“I just don’t think there’s any question that we are about to abandon Ukraine,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), one of the key negotiators on the border package. “When Vladimir Putin marches into Kyiv and into Europe, Republicans will have to live with the fact that our sons and daughters will be over fighting when Vladimir Putin marches into a NATO country. They will rue the day that they decided to play politics.”
“We have to seriously contemplate the possibility that we’re not going to get this done,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.). “Ukraine is in desperate need of confidence that we will continue to keep our word.”
There was no such confidence Tuesday. Schumer set up the classified briefing in an attempt to make it more difficult for Republicans to vote against Ukraine aid. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was expected to brief the senators via videoconference in the secure room beneath the Capitol but had to back out for reasons senators did not disclose.
In the briefing, Cotton raised his voice at Schumer, who blamed Republicans for injecting border policy demands. Cotton retorted that the blame should be on the president. Other Republicans, unified in their intent to redirect the briefing to the issue of security on the U.S.-Mexico border, also engaged in the argument. Cotton then asked the briefers for an exact date when funding for Ukraine would run out. A group of Republicans walked out in protest just 30 minutes after the briefing began.
Ukraine aid is a tough vote for many Republicans who say they could risk primary challenges and backlash because their base is increasingly opposed to sending an additional $60 billion — on top of more than $110 billion the United States has already allocated — to Ukraine.
That calculation is difficult even for some Republicans who back aiding Ukraine. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is an enthusiastic supporter of Ukraine funding, said she is “definitely leaning toward” voting against Wednesday’s procedural vote without border policy changes. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), another key moderate, is also undecided.
The White House bluntly warned Congress this week that money will run out for Ukraine “by the end of the year,” increasing the pressure as lawmakers get ready to leave for the holidays next week.
“If Republicans take down the Ukraine bill because of their disagreement over a totally unrelated policy fight, then they own the global cataclysm that will be created because of their political gamesmanship,” Murphy said.
But some Republican senators say they hope a failed vote could push Democrats to realize they must accept a more conservative set of immigration policies to get the Israel and Ukraine funding.
“I think … Schumer will realize we’re serious,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.). “And then the discussions will begin in earnest.”
A small bipartisan group of senators negotiating over the border were making progress on changes to asylum policy that would have made it harder for migrants to apply for asylum at the U.S. border. But Republicans pushed for larger changes affecting migrants who do not apply for asylum and limits on the president’s ability to parole categories of migrants.
The talks are not entirely dead but have reached an impasse, according to senators. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a key negotiator, said this week he is still working toward a deal, while Murphy, his Democratic counterpart, has sounded less hopeful.
“I am very glad that Senator Lankford is much more optimistic than I am about this; that tells me that he still wants to get to a deal, but to get there, Republicans have to come back to reality,” Murphy said.
Even Republicans who are supportive of Ukraine say they cannot let the opportunity to force immigration changes pass them by.
“If we do Ukraine, Chuck Schumer has no impetus or no incentive to work on the border. So that’s why it’s going hand in hand,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a swing-district moderate who said his internal polling shows the border is the top issue among his constituents.
“This is a unique opportunity for us,” Cornyn said.
Jacob Bogage contributed to this report.