Washington dysfunction could get a lot of Ukrainians killed
Opinion by Josh Rogin
December 15, 2023 at 0:20 Taiwan Time
Inside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s meeting with dozens of U.S. senators at the Capitol on Tuesday morning, Republican Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina was the last to speak. Graham tried to explain to Zelensky why urgent military and economic aid for Ukraine is held up by a partisan dispute in Washington over immigration policy.
“I know this is not a problem of your making, but understand that the votes are there, Mr. President, for helping your country,” Graham recalled telling Zelensky in an interview after the meeting. “But aid to Ukraine has to go through a border, an American southern border that’s more secure.”
Zelensky just nodded, without saying a word. His visit to Washington to lobby for U.S. aid had been futile. Even though he met with several key GOP leaders, including House Speaker Mike Johnson (La.), he failed to shift Republicans from their position that any further aid to Ukraine must be tied to significant policy changes regarding immigration.
Democrats are right that conflating Ukraine and immigration policy, first done by the previous GOP House speaker at the behest of the MAGA crowd, was always a terrible idea. Ukrainians shouldn’t die needlessly while American politicians haggle over something unrelated. But there’s no going back now. And while the administration doesn’t want to help Republican leadership placate the Trump-MAGA right-wingers, that’s the only way this is going to get done.
Zelensky’s visit “didn’t help,” Graham told me. And it’s not because of anything Zelensky said. “The administration put him in an untenable position” by orchestrating a visit to Washington that thrust Zelensky directly into the middle of a partisan political fight he was trying hard to avoid.
The frustration from senators in both parties was palpable after the Zelensky meeting. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who supports Ukraine aid, told me that Senate Democrats wasted months by refusing to negotiate seriously on border provisions. Now, with Congress leaving town, Republicans are unanimous in saying there’s not enough time to complete the negotiations and then have both chambers pass the proposed $100 billion emergency funding package including aid to Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and the southern U.S. border this year.
“Ask [Senate Majority Leader Charles E.] Schumer why he waited until the end of the year to tee this up, knowing about but trying to ignore the border issues,” Cornyn told me. “So, it will be a January exercise, I assume.”
Democrats in the Senate push back by pointing out, rightly, that it was Republicans who conflated the Ukraine and border issues in the first place. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told me that the Republicans are to blame for the delay, which could have terrible consequences on the Ukrainian battlefield.
“If their ammunition supply starts to choke, then they are put in a very precarious position,” Whitehouse said. Despite talk of a stalemate, there are active battles going on in places such as Avdiivka and Bakhmut, where Ukrainians are depending on resupply of vital equipment from the United States to survive, he said. Late-rriving ammunition is of little value if the soldiers waiting for it get killed.
Many on Capitol Hill on both sides blame the administration for avoiding for months getting directly involved in immigration-related talks, fearing backlash from progressives. Instead, the administration’s strategy was to justify the aid to Ukraine on its merits, arguing it boosts domestic manufacturing or pointing out how many Russians have been killed with U.S. weapons.
But arguing the merits was never going to work, because the Republicans who support Ukraine aid didn’t need more convincing. They need something big on the border side of the equation from the administration to give political cover to those Republicans who want to approve Ukraine aid but fear the wrath of the GOP base. The White House now seems to get that. In recent days, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients has been directly involved in the border-related negotiations.
Tuesday afternoon, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas visited the Capitol and met privately with Senate leadership. CBS News reported, and my sources confirmed, that Mayorkas put substantive concessions on the table regarding immigration. A senior Republican congressional aide told me these concessions increase greatly the chances for a deal — just not this year.
“Secretary Mayorkas and DHS staff have been providing technical assistance, as requested, to senators on both sides of the aisle and their staff. DHS is not negotiating the terms of any policy proposal,” a Department of Homeland Security official told me.
Worryingly, when Congress does reconvene next month, both sides’ ability to make a deal could be even more constrained. On the Republican side, Donald Trump’s MAGA allies in Congress and anti-Ukraine-aid groups such as the Heritage Foundation will have spent weeks urging GOP lawmakers not to support it. And on the Democratic side, progressive groups are already organizing to oppose any deal that includes significant concessions on immigration.
“At the end of the day, the administration has got to tell the far left something they don’t want to hear,” Graham told me. “And I’ve got to tell my party something they don’t want to hear: We are going to help Ukraine.”
All sides must compromise to push through emergency funding for Israel, Ukraine, the Indo-Pacific and border security as soon as possible in the new year. It will take some courage and some risk for all parties. But the alternative is to let Russian President Vladimir Putin win, which would bring about an even bigger national security nightmare than we already have.