When he walks into the historic Mansfield Room this morning, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will be thrust into a brutal political dynamic over which he has alarmingly little control.
For starters, Zelensky isn’t going to get Senate Republicans to back off their demands for immigration policy changes in exchange for more money for Ukraine.
The lead Senate GOP negotiator is already saying a deal can’t get done before the end of the year and is alleging the White House didn’t talk to him about the issue. The blame game over the looming failure on Ukraine is already in full swing across Washington.
Congress seems very likely to leave for the holidays without passing any new Ukraine aid. That means Zelensky won’t have any clear commitment from his nation’s most important ally as he heads back to Europe for even more talks on his country’s future.
This is what Zelensky faces today as he makes the case that Ukraine is at a life-or-death moment. It’s almost as if he’s being set up to fail.
Democrats maintain that Republicans’ immigration demands are unrealistic and complain GOP leaders are holding a bipartisan foreign policy priority hostage. Some believe Zelensky shouldn’t even need to come back to Washington after congressional leaders promised during his last visit in September.
“I don’t think it’s President Biden who is setting up Zelensky to fail. I think it is colleagues of mine who are insisting on driving too hard a deal that is more than the freight can bear,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Biden’s closest Senate ally, told us Monday night.
Senate Republicans indicated that they don’t even really want to hear from Zelensky, but rather a different president — Joe Biden. There isn’t going to be a “light bulb” moment for Republicans until Biden shows a willingness to move in their direction, according to GOP senators.
“Our members are pretty dug in. The message coming out of Zelensky’s meeting ought to be ‘We want to help, but we need the Democrats to get serious about the border,’” Senate Minority Whip John Thune said. “I mean, it’s really that simple right now.”
Zelensky is also meeting today with Speaker Mike Johnson, arguably the biggest obstacle to Ukraine funding. Johnson remains adamant that Democrats and the White House must agree to some or all of the harsh border-security provisions outlined in H.R. 2, the Secure the Border Act. That legislation got zero Democratic votes when approved by the House back in May.
“I understand the necessity of ensuring that Vladimir Putin does not prevail in Ukraine and march through Europe,” Johnson said at a Wall Street Journal event on Monday:
Much of what we’re hearing from Hill Republicans is a reflection of the mood inside their party, which is turning sharply against additional Ukraine aid nearly two years after the Russian invasion. Those Republicans who continue to support billions of dollars in new Ukraine funding now feel like they can’t justify that without an overhaul of border and immigration policies.
“If you’re talking about anything [Zelensky] could say to say, ‘Hey, pay attention to us but not your own country’ — No,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the lead GOP negotiator in the border talks, told us. “Because we’ve got to be able to deal with all of these things together. That’s how this package started at the very beginning.”
Indeed, it was the White House that initially looped the border security issues into its original supplemental funding request back in August. Then Biden upped the request to $13 billion for border security in October.
This was intended to serve as a sweetener for Republicans skeptical of more Ukraine funding. Instead, Republicans saw the White House’s ask and then pushed their own ideas about how to address the migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.
For their part, progressives and pro-immigration advocates are nervous that Zelensky’s visit could prompt Biden and Democrats to panic and cave to GOP demands. We saw a hint of that when Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) released a blistering statement Monday warning Biden it would be “unconscionable” to give in.
Instead, Democrats hope Zelensky can “convince” Republicans that they should act this month no matter what, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the lead Democratic negotiator, told us.
But let’s be real. When even Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) — a staunch Ukraine supporter who usually shuns hardball tactics — says it’s on Biden to move in Republicans’ direction, that’s a clear signal that Zelensky’s visit will be an exercise in futility.
“Why won’t Democrats get the job done? Getting funding for Ukraine is so critical, they ought to do whatever it takes to get the border [fixed],” Romney said.
— Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan