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Biden and Italy's Meloni to hold talks at time of worries about Ukraine, political headwinds at home

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and President Joe Biden talk during the launch of the Global Biofuels Alliance at the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, Sept. 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Pool, File) Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and President Joe Biden talk during the launch of the Global Biofuels Alliance at the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, Sept. 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Pool, File)
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U.S. President Joe Biden is hosting Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni on Friday for talks at the White House as the Democratic leader struggles to persuade House Republicans to pass legislation that would replenish aid to Ukraine and as both men face political headwinds at home.

Biden has sought to assure European leaders that the U.S. remains behind Ukraine even as he's been unable to win passage of a supplemental foreign aid package that includes US$60 billion for Ukraine in addition to US$35 billion for Israel and Taiwan. The legislation has passed the Senate, but Republican Speaker Mike Johnson has refused to put it up for a vote in the House.

Ahead of Meloni's visit, White House officials said they don't have good answers for allies about finding an end to the impasse with House Republicans and reopening the American spigot of aid to Kyiv that's badly needed as Ukraine tries to fend off Russia's invasion.

"It's obviously having a demonstrable impact not just on our national security but the security of allies and partners around the world," White House spokesperson Olivia Dalton said.

Biden, along with top Democrats and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, strongly urged Johnson during a White House meeting this week to take up the foreign aid package, but Johnson responded by saying that Congress "must take care of America's needs first."

Friday's meeting is the second between Biden and Meloni in about seven months. Both leaders are grappling with war in the Middle East and Europe and looking to shore up their public standing.

Biden has begun ramping up for an all-but-certain rematch in November against former President Donald Trump, the likely GOP nominee. Biden's bid for a second term is complicated by the electorate's concern about his age, 81, frustration among some Democrats over his handling of the Israel-Hamas war and mixed feelings about the state of the American economy.

Polls show that Meloni's right-wing Brothers of Italy Party, which swept into power in 2022, still enjoys the most support in Italy, but it has seen a noticeable decline over the last year. Her bloc faced a setback this week when the candidate she campaigned for was defeated in regional elections on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia.

Meloni's popularity will be further tested with four more regional elections in 2024 and nationwide elections for Italy's representatives to the European parliament set for June.

"Meloni and Biden both for different reasons seem to be in difficulty, so this meeting can show the public opinion that there's a solid relationship with allies that are considered important," said Gianluca Pastori, an analyst at the ISPI think tank in Milan.

Meloni traveled to Kyiv last week to host a Group of Seven leaders meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the second anniversary of Russia's invasion. Leaders of Belgium, Canada and the EU Commission joined Meloni in Kyiv, and Biden and other leaders joined by video. Italy assumed its one-year presidency of the G7 in January.

During her recent visit to Kyiv, Meloni reaffirmed Italian support for Ukraine and signed a security cooperation agreement for military and technical assistance through the end of the year. Italy is also committed to helping Ukraine reconstruct historical monuments.

There was trepidation in the Biden administration when Meloni rose to power as the head of Italy's first far-right-led government since the end of World War II. But the two have found common ground over the cause of Ukraine, and Biden heaped praise on Meloni and Italy for its efforts to back Kyiv when she visited Washington in July.

The leaders' agenda also was expected to cover efforts by the U.S., Egypt and Qatar to broker an extended cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Italy's priorities for a G7 presidency, migrant flows into Italy from North Africa, and their countries' China policies.

Biden said earlier this week that he was optimistic that a cease-fire deal could be reached by early next week. But he acknowledged that a prospective deal may have been set back after Israeli troops on Thursday fired on a large crowd of Palestinians racing to pull food off an aid convoy in Gaza City. More than 100 people were killed.

Meloni reacted with "dismay and concern" to the incident.

"It is urgent for Israel to ascertain the dynamics of the events and who is responsible," said Meloni, who called for intensified negotiations to reach a cease-fire and for the release of hostages.

Meloni is to travel to Canada to meet on Saturday with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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