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Mike Johnson

The Ukraine quagmire

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is scheduled to speak to senators remotely during a classified briefing this afternoon. And the No. 2 Ukrainian official in that country’s presidential line of succession — Ruslan Stefanchuk, the speaker of Ukraine’s parliament — will be at the Capitol today to meet with lawmakers in both parties and both chambers.

But let’s be clear about what the Ukrainian leaders are walking into, literally and figuratively — a legislative “dumpster fire” with enormously high stakes for Washington, Kyiv and beyond.

On Monday, it became obvious just how messy things really are — on several fronts.

Setting the stage: The White House and lawmakers from both parties are warning that Ukraine’s military will almost certainly suffer battlefield losses to the Russians if new U.S. aid isn’t approved before the end of December.

Republicans, however, are conditioning their support for Ukrainian aid on Democrats and President Joe Biden accepting policy changes to address the migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Partisan sniping: As we first reported, Senate Democrats walked away from the border negotiations on Friday night after concluding that Republicans were unwilling to meet them in the middle. The two sides didn’t negotiate at all over the weekend as a result.

But on Monday, the lead GOP negotiator, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), disputed the idea that the talks suffered a setback. This came even as the top Democratic negotiator, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), insisted the two sides weren’t currently negotiating and hadn’t since Friday. Republicans sent a counter-proposal Monday night in an effort to revive the talks.

And Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), who’s also involved in the border talks, appeared to clap back Monday at Democrats’ suggestions that Republicans were proposing extreme measures.

To be sure, both sides are posturing ahead of a likely procedural vote Wednesday on Biden’s $105 billion foreign aid request. The vote is expected to fail given that the aid package — which covers Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan — won’t include GOP border demands.

Of course, a failed vote would send a horrible signal to Ukraine and U.S. allies globally, especially after Ukraine’s top leaders appeal directly to senators for help. Murphy said flatly this is “a really dangerous moment” for the Senate.

“I think the world needs to be very concerned about what’s happening here,” Murphy told us. “Republicans have decided to hold Ukraine funding hostage to a domestic political priority that is among the hardest in American politics to solve.”

Yet Senate Republicans believe a failed cloture vote could be exactly what’s needed to reinvigorate the talks. GOP senators have been telling us that Democrats will eventually come around simply because of the urgency of passing new Ukraine funding.

“It’s a point of leverage,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. “There’s a supermajority of people who want this [foreign] aid to go forward, and we think this is an opportunity for us.”

Zelensky’s and Stefanchuk’s entreaties will undoubtedly contribute to that sense of urgency felt by both parties.

Republicans vs. each other: There are also some serious fissures emerging between House and Senate Republicans over their strategy for securing border policy changes.

Speaker Mike Johnson has already told Senate Republicans he won’t put a bill on the House floor that groups Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and border security together. Johnson has also warned the other Big Four Hill leaders that he can’t pair Ukraine with anything less than H.R. 2, the House GOP border security bill, as we scooped Monday.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell favors a comprehensive approach to foreign aid and border security, and his negotiators aren’t insisting on H.R. 2. McConnell is getting critical backup from some Senate Republicans who are now openly questioning Johnson’s strategy.

“H.R. 2 didn’t get a single Democrat vote in the House,” Lankford noted. “I have to get 20 Democrat votes here [in the Senate]. If the House is going to say it has to be our bill that we got zero Democrats on but I need you to go get 20 over in your body, that’s not rational. That’s not how things work.”

“That’s good — he’ll get what we send him,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), another GOP negotiator, quipped when asked about Johnson’s position.

Here’s what Senate Republicans are telling us: If the House GOP strategy is “H.R. 2 or bust,” that essentially guarantees U.S. aid for Ukraine will end. But that’s what many of Johnson’s House GOP colleagues want anyway.

Johnson fed into this narrative on Monday when he wrote on X that House Republicans have “legitimate concerns about the lack of a clear strategy in Ukraine, a path to resolving the conflict, or a plan for adequately ensuring accountability for aid provided by American taxpayers.” McConnell, of course, has rebutted many of these arguments.

Here’s the bottom line: The fate of Ukraine aid comes down to whether McConnell and Johnson can find a sweet spot on border policy that can satiate the party’s base and appease Democrats and the White House while clearing Congress before the end of the year.

— Andrew Desiderio, John Bresnahan and Jake Sherman

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