Zelenskyy appears to change few minds on grim Capitol Hill as aid package for Ukraine risks collapse


WASHINGTON (AP) — His country's future at stake, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told senators Tuesday that with U.S. aid his fighters can beat back the Russian invasion. But with funding in doubt, his grim trip to Capitol Hill was far from the hero's welcome he received last winter.

Zelenskyy's visit to Washington came as President Joe Biden's request for an additional $110 billion U.S. aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other national security needs is at serious risk of collapse in Congress. Republicans are insisting on linking it to strict U.S.-Mexico border security changes that Democrats decry.

Flanked by Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Zelenskyy entered a private meeting with senators with a public bipartisan show of support and to some applause. But, more than an hour later, few senators' minds appeared changed.

Schumer called it a “very powerful” meeting but gave no update on stalled negotiations.

“It is maddening,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a close ally of Biden, ahead of the session. “A very bad message to the world, to the Ukrainian people.”

The White House said the time was right for Zelenskyy’s trip to Washington as Biden pushes lawmakers to approve the aid package before the year-end holidays. A top spokesman said the U.S. can't let Ukraine aid lapse, especially as the Israel-Hamas war has taken attention, and that the president was willing to make compromises with Republicans.

“This additional funding will absolutely help Ukraine claw back even more of their territory and kick the Russians right out of Ukraine," said the White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby on NBC.

However, prospects for a congressional deal on Ukraine funding seemed all but out of reach.

Zelenskyy impressed on the senators that Ukraine could win the war against Russia, telling them he was drafting men in their 30s and 40s in a show of strength for the battle. In his trademark olive drab, he stood before a portrait of George Washington, history hanging behind him.

But Republican senators exited the meeting unmoved from their position that border security policy be paired with aid to Ukraine.

Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., said the emergency funding wouldn’t gain GOP support unless it includes “real, meaningful border reform.”

Zelenskyy was next scheduled to visit new House Speaker Mike Johnson, Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries and then Biden.

Biden has expressed a willingness to engage with the Republicans as migrant crossings have hit record highs along the U.S.-Mexico border, but Democrats in his own party oppose proposals for expedited deportations and strict asylum standards as a return to Trump-era hostility towards migrants.

With talks at a standstill, one chief Republican negotiator, Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, said there was nothing Zelenskyy could say during his visit with the senators to sway the outcome.

“Hey, pay attention to us, but not your own country? No,” Lankford told reporters. “We’ve got to be able to deal with all these things together.”

Ahead of Zelenskyy’s high-stakes meetings, the White House late Monday pointed to newly declassified intelligence that shows Ukraine has inflicted heavy losses on Russia in recent fighting along the Avdiivka-Novopavlivka axis — including 13,000 casualties and over 220 combat vehicle losses. The Ukrainian holdout in the country’s partly-occupied east has been the center of some of the fiercest fighting in recent weeks.

U.S. intelligence officials have determined that the Russians think if they can achieve a military deadlock through the winter it will drain Western support for Ukraine and ultimately give Russia the advantage, despite the fact that Russians have sustained heavy losses and have been slowed by persistent shortages of trained personnel, munitions and equipment.

White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said that Russian President Vladimir Putin “is clearly watching what happens in Congress — and we need Congress to act this month to support Ukraine in its time of need.”

Zelenskyy, who visited Washington just months ago in September when the aid package was first being considered, is making his third trip to the Capitol since the war broke out in February 2022.

His surprise arrival days before Christmas last December was Zelenskyy's first wartime trip out of Ukraine and he received thunderous applause in Congress. Lawmakers sported the blue-and-yellow colors of Ukraine, and Zelenskyy delivered a speech that drew on the parallels to World War II as he thanked Americans for their support.

New Speaker Johnson, on the job since October when Republicans ousted their previous leader Kevin McCarthy, has spoken publicly in favor of aiding Ukraine, as has McConnell. But it's not certain they can steer an aid package through the House's right flank.

Johnson said in a social media post ahead of their meeting: "If we’re going to have a national security supplemental package, it ought to begin with our own national security first."

Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Zelenskyy has an opportunity to impress on Johnson in their private talk “the moral clarity and why is Ukraine important.”

He said Zelenskyy could shake up the stalemate in Congress by reminding Johnson and the senators, “If we abandon our NATO allies and Ukraine, like we did in Afghanistan, we’re just going to invite more aggression and embolden and empower our adversaries.”

Zelenskyy kicked off the quick visit to Washington on Monday, warning in a speech at a defense university that Russia may be fighting in Ukraine but its “real target is freedom” in America and around the world.

Of the new $110 billion national security package, $61.4 billion would go toward Ukraine — with about half, some $30 billion, going to the Defense Department to replenish weaponry it is supplying, and the other half for humanitarian assistance and to help the Ukrainian government function with emergency responders, public works and other operations.

The package includes another nearly $14 billion for Israel as it fights Hamas and $14 billion for U.S. border security. Additional funds would go for national security needs in the Asia-Pacific region.

The U.S. has already provided Ukraine $111 billion for its fight against Russia’s 2022 invasion.

The White House has been more engaged with Congress, with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in some discussions, according to a person familiar with the talks and granted anonymity to discuss them. But Republicans said the Democrats did not respond to their latest offer.

Border security talks have focused on making it more difficult for migrants to claim asylum and releasing fewer of them temporarily into the U.S. while they await proceedings to determine if they can remain permanently.

Republicans have also proposed allowing the president to shut parts of the border when crossings reach high numbers, as they have for the past two years. One White House idea would expand the ability to conduct expedited deportations, drawing alarm from immigrant advocates.

As border talks drag, Biden’s budget director said last week that the U.S. will run out of funding to send weapons and assistance to Ukraine by the end of the year.