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Biden and party leaders implore U.S. Speaker Johnson to help Ukraine in 'intense' Oval Office meeting

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Congressional leaders emerged from an “intense” Oval Office meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday speaking optimistically about the prospects for avoiding a partial government shutdown, but with new uncertainty about aid for Ukraine and Israel as the president and others urgently warned Speaker Mike Johnson of the grave consequences of delay.

Biden called the leaders to the White House in hopes of making progress against a legislative logjam on Capitol Hill that has major ramifications not just for the U.S. but for the world as Ukraine struggles to repel Russia's invasion with weapons and ammunition starting to run short.

“The need is urgent,” Biden said of the Ukraine aid. “The consequences of inaction every day in Ukraine are dire.”

Biden hosted Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the Oval Office along with Republican House Speaker Johnson and Vice President Kamala Harris. After the more than hour-long meeting, Biden pulled Johnson aside for a private conversation.

Democratic leaders upon exiting the meeting were blunt about the dangers Ukraine is facing.

“We said to the speaker, ‘get it done,” said Schumer. “I said I’ve been around here a long time, it's maybe four or five times that history is looking over your shoulder and if you don't do the right thing, whatever the immediate politics are, you will regret it.

Referring to Johnson, he said, "Really, it's in his hands. It's in his hands.”

Schumer, who was joined by Jeffries in describing how the meeting went, called the session “one of the most intense I've ever encountered" in the Oval Office.

Johnson spoke to reporters on his own, without Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell by his side. McConnell voted for a US$95 billion foreign aid bill earlier this month that would aid Ukraine and Israel, replenish U.S. defense systems and provide humanitarian assistance for Gaza and the West Bank, Ukraine and other populations caught in conflict zones. The bill passed the Senate 70-29, but the Republican-led House has not acted on it, despite pleas from McConnell and others for action.

Johnson, who rejected a U.S. Mexico border security compromise that was eventually stripped from the final product, signaled no change in his position on Ukraine aid. He said the Senate’s package “does nothing” to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, the GOP's demand in return for helping Ukraine.

“The first priority of the country is our border, and making it secure,” Johnson said.

The speaker's continued call for border changes has frustrated senators, who spent months negotiating a bipartisan border deal only to have House Republicans reject it at the urging of former U.S. president Donald Trump. The bill would have denied migrants the ability to apply for asylum at the border if the number of daily crossings became unmanageable for authorities, among other major changes.

“It’s time for action" Johnson said of the border. "It is a catastrophe, and it must stop.”

Schumer said Democrats, too, want to tackle the problems at the U.S-Mexico border, but that it will take time and “we have to do Ukraine right now.” He said he discussed during the meeting his visit last week to Ukraine with other lawmakers and recounted the agonizing stories told by soldiers who have no ammunition left to fire.

In the meeting, "we made it clear how vital this was to the United States. This was so, so important, and that we couldn’t afford to wait a month or two months or three months, because we would in all likelihood lose the war, NATO would be fractured at best, allies would turn away from the United States, and the boldest leaders, the boldest autocrats of the world ... would be emboldened,” he said.

Central Intelligence Agency Director Bill Burns also joined Tuesday's meeting. Burns has played key roles coordinating the U.S. response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine as well as efforts to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas after its Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

McConnell upon returning from the meeting called on the House to take up the Senate-passed bill. Many supporters of the bill predict that it would pass overwhelmingly on the House floor if Johnson were to bring it up for a vote, but doing so would risk enormous blowback from some in his conference who don't support any more help for Ukraine. Some have even threatened his job if he allows the bill to pass.

“We don’t want the Russians to win in Ukraine and so we have a time problem here. And the best way to move quickly and get the bill to the president would be for the House to take up the Senate bill,” McConnell said.

Apart from the national security package, government funding for agriculture, transportation, military construction and some veterans’ services expires Friday. And funding for the rest of the government, including the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, expires a week later, on March 8, the day after Biden is set to deliver his State of the Union address.

“It’s Congress' responsibility to fund the government,” Biden said. “A government shutdown would damage the economy significantly. We need a bipartisan solution.”

The congressional leaders seemed more hopeful that they would be able to prevent any shutdown, though it may require another short-term extension to be passed this week.

“We are making real progress on the appropriations bills that are scheduled to lapse on March 1," Jeffries said. “And I'm cautiously optimistic that we can do what is necessary within the next day or so to close down these bills and avoid a government shutdown.”

“We believe that we can get to agreement on these issues and prevent a government shutdown. And that’s our first responsibility,” Johnson said.

Associated Press reporters Stephen Groves and Will Weissert contributed.

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