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Republicans block Ukraine aid bill over border objections

President Joe Biden urges Congress to pass a national security supplemental request, including funding to support Ukraine, in remarks from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on Wednesday. “This cannot wait,” Biden said.   (Kent Nishimura/New York Times)
By Karoun Demirjian New York Times

WASHINGTON – Republicans on Wednesday blocked an emergency spending bill to fund the war in Ukraine, demanding new border restrictions in exchange and severely jeopardizing President Joe Biden’s push to replenish the war chests of U.S. allies before the end of the year.

The failed vote highlighted waning support in the United States for continuing to fund Ukraine’s war effort at a perilous time in the conflict, with Kyiv’s counteroffensive failing to meet its objectives and Russia’s forces on the offensive. While the bill faltered over an unrelated immigration policy dispute, the resistance it has met in Congress reflects a dwindling appetite among Republicans for continuing to back Ukraine, as polls show that Americans are losing interest in continuing to provide financial support.

In the Senate, the vote to move forward on the bill was 49-51, short of the 60-vote threshold. Republicans held ranks against advancing the $111 billion bill, which would provide about $50 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, more for economic and humanitarian aid, and an additional $14 billion toward arming Israel in its war against Hamas. They voted no despite a series of last-ditch appeals from Democrats and an appeal by Biden, who said he was prepared to offer “significant compromises” on the border and scolded them for abandoning Ukraine in its hour of need.

“Make no mistake: Today’s vote’s going to be long remembered, and history is going to judge harshly those who turned their backs on freedom’s cause,” Biden said Wednesday at the White House, just hours before the vote. He said Republicans were “willing to literally kneecap Ukraine on the battlefield and damage our national security in the process.”

The demise of the legislation in the Senate meant Ukraine was exceedingly unlikely to be able to secure the additional U.S. aid before the end of the year – and possibly beyond. White House and Ukrainian officials have been sounding alarms in recent days, telling lawmakers that without an influx of weapons, Kyiv will run out of resources to defend against Russia’s invading army by the end of the year.

In an interview Wednesday, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said Ukraine’s “ability to advance and their ability to defend will be substantially constrained” if Congress does not approve funding soon.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia has “been quite public and vocal about his notion that if military aid from the United States ceases, it will mean that Russia will defeat Ukraine,” Sullivan added.

But dire warnings have done nothing to wear down Republican opposition in the Senate, where lawmakers spent the hours before Wednesday’s vote trading blame over the collapse of the bid to help Ukraine.

Republicans, even those who have been staunch advocates for arming Ukraine, blamed Democrats for refusing to bow to their demands for major immigration policy changes as the price of securing more assistance for Kyiv.

“Apparently some of our colleagues would rather let Russia trample a sovereign nation in Europe than do what it takes to enforce America’s own sovereign borders,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, said on the Senate floor. “They’re convinced open borders are worth jeopardizing security around the world.”

Democrats rejected that charge, pointing to over $20 billion the spending bill devoted to border security measures like hiring patrol and asylum officers and beefing up fentanyl screenings. Instead, they accused Republican lawmakers of manufacturing a false crisis by leveraging Ukraine’s fate to promote a restrictive border agenda that would never pass the Democratic-led Senate.

“You can’t say ‘I’m for Ukraine, but only if I get this wholly unrelated policy enacted,’ ” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. “You can’t be for stopping Putin from taking over a country by force and then vote against providing Ukraine the resources to do just that.”

Democrats voted unanimously in favor of advancing the measure, but Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who normally votes with them, joined Republicans in opposition. Sanders had argued in a letter to his colleagues it would be “absolutely irresponsible” to provide Israel with billions of dollars in unconditional military assistance, given the rising civilian death toll in the Gaza Strip. And Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, changed his vote at the end to allow him to bring up the bill again in the future.

But the path ahead for the measure was unclear. While some lawmakers are eyeing upcoming government funding deadlines in January and February as future opportunities to strike a deal, others fear that waiting months could endanger Ukraine’s war effort.

“We cannot afford delays that tell our adversaries they can just wait us out,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chair of the Appropriations Committee, said on the Senate floor.

Biden conceded Wednesday that the border should be addressed, saying: “We need to fix the broken border system. It is broken.”

But he branded Republicans’ demands “extreme.”

In bipartisan talks in recent weeks to find a compromise, Senate Democrats agreed in principle to make it more difficult for migrants to seek asylum in the United States. But they balked at some of the GOP senators’ more restrictive proposals, including measures to detain all migrant families, keep migrants in Mexico until their day in immigration court, and expand the president’s authority to expel migrants swiftly, before they can make asylum claims.

And Speaker Mike Johnson has demanded even more stringent policies, including a ban on the use of an application to streamline some migrants’ entry into the United States and a requirement that employers use an electronic database known as E-Verify to confirm that their hires are eligible to work in the United States.

Schumer made a last-ditch effort this week to keep the spending bill alive by offering Republicans a chance to try to add a border security amendment to the measure – provided they could secure 60 votes for it.

This “is the moment for Republicans to put up or shut up,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told reporters Wednesday, citing Schumer’s offer. “If we cannot come to a vote that sustains our allies and partners in Ukraine, we will have failed this moment in history.”

But Republicans did not take Schumer up on the offer.

In a floor speech Wednesday, he questioned whether Republicans were even interested in making a deal – or if the goal had been to abandon Ukraine all along.

”Has border been nothing more than an excuse for the hard right to kill funding for Ukraine and too many other Republican senators who are not part of the hard right are going along?” he said. “Because we don’t have much time to keep negotiating off the floor if all we’ll do is go around in circles.”

The Senate’s failed vote came as Ukrainian officials met with defense contractors at a summit sponsored by the Commerce Department to discuss Ukraine’s longer-term needs on the battlefield. The United States has approved $111 billion in aid for Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion in early 2022, including at least $45 billion in military assistance, most of which has flowed through U.S. defense contractors.

But the early zeal for helping Kyiv beat back an invading force has fizzled as the war grinds to a stalemate, after a Ukrainian counteroffensive largely failed to meet its objectives. While most Senate Republicans still say they support arming Ukraine, a majority of House Republicans, including Johnson, have voted in recent months to curtail aid programs.

In a speech to conference attendees, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin committed to staying in the fight with Ukraine, despite the discord over funding such ventures in Congress.

”Together with our allies and partners, I am confident that we have all the pieces that we need to help our Ukrainian friends sustain their fight for their sovereignty over the long haul,” Austin said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.