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U.S. House Speaker Johnson is insisting on sweeping border security changes in a deal for Ukraine aid

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy poses for a photo after his interview with The Associated Press in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy poses for a photo after his interview with The Associated Press in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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WASHINGTON -

House Speaker Mike Johnson told fellow Republicans on Tuesday that sweeping changes to U.S. border policy would be their "hill to die on" in negotiations that have already grown tense as Congress considers President Joe Biden's US$110 billion package for the wars in Ukraine and Israel and other security needs.

Johnson delivered the hard-line message Tuesday morning ahead of classified briefings the Biden administration organized to underscore how desperately the aid is needed. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was scheduled to address the senators via video but had to cancel his appearance, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

Instead, the meeting erupted in frustration and yelling as Republicans insisted on including border security in the discussion. Democrats have dismissed the Republican border proposals as attempts to return to the draconian policies of former President Donald Trump.

Biden is pushing a reluctant Congress to approve the military, economic and humanitarian aid package, but the injection of border security into the negotiations has made progress difficult. The Senate was headed to a test vote Wednesday, but Republicans have promised to block it.

"The battle is for the border," Johnson said at a news conference. "We do that first as a top priority, and we'll take care of these other obligations."

Moments earlier, Johnson told GOP lawmakers in a closed-door meeting that their "hill to die on" in the negotiations was border policy, according to a Republican in the meeting. Conservatives are pressing for the provisions in H.R. 2, a bill they passed in May that would restart construction of walls along the southern border and make it drastically more difficult for migrants to claim asylum in the U.S.

Johnson reiterated his stance in a letter to the White House on Tuesday, one day after officials warned that the U.S. will run out of funding to send weapons and assistance to Ukraine by the end of the year, threatening its ability to fight Russia's invasion.

In the Senate, Schumer is trying to advance the emergency funding legislation but without the border provisions Republicans are demanding. He described the package as crucial to ensuring the future of Ukraine and democracy.

"This is a turning point in Western civilization," Schumer told reporters at a news conference.

Schumer added that Johnson told him in a private meeting that he could not pass the supplemental package through the House without H.R. 2 attached.

The GOP's demands could imperil any legislation that emerges from the Senate, where a bipartisan group is trying to find agreement on a pared-down set of border policy proposals. Republicans in those negotiations have acknowledged they are not insisting on the broad policies included in the House's legislation, creating a schism between the two chambers.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said it was "not rational" to expect the closely divided Senate to pass a bill that didn't gain a single Democratic vote in the House.

"You can't make law like that," Lankford said. "We have to make law."

So far, the Senate negotiations have centered on a proposal to raise the initial threshold for migrants to enter the asylum system, as well as limiting the executive branch's ability to admit migrants through humanitarian parole.

Democrats took a step back from the talks earlier this week, saying that Republicans were unwilling to compromise. Republican senators are making a counter-offer, but still say they will block the funding package if it does not include border security policy they can agree on.

Before Wednesday's test vote, Schumer made Republicans what he called a "golden offer": agree to move ahead with the aid package and they could offer any amendment they want to add border security to the package.

But when Schumer brought up the amendment offer in the classified briefing Tuesday afternoon, several Republican senators stood up and stormed out of the meeting, which was with senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. CQ Brown Jr.

"Republicans are just walking out of the briefing because the people there are not willing to actually discuss what it takes to get a deal done," said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

At one point, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., raised his voice at Schumer, according to a person familiar with the private meeting and granted anonymity to discuss it. Cotton was pushing back against Schumer's claim that Republicans had inserted border security into the debate and arguing Biden had opened the door to policy by including border funding in the package.

In another exchange, Sen. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota, said he repeatedly tried to engage with Brown chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about border security.

As senators departed, they described a tense and angry meeting. Schumer told reporters that a Republican senator had screamed at a general, but declined to say who it was.

"Nobody stabbed anybody -- I'll put it that way -- but it was close," said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is encouraging all GOP senators to vote against advancing the Biden aid package to show they are "serious" in demanding border changes.

"Now is the time to pay attention to our own border in addition to these other important international concerns," he said.

House lawmakers also heard from national security adviser Jake Sullivan about the urgency of providing assistance. Republicans in the House remain deeply skeptical of sending more wartime funding to Ukraine, and some have said they won't support it even if it is paired with hard-line border policy.

The White House has declined to discuss publicly the details of the border negotiations and urged lawmakers to quickly pass Biden's emergency funding request.

Olivia Dalton, the White House principal deputy press secretary, said aboard Air Force One on Tuesday that the president and his administration have been "very clear" about the stakes in Ukraine.

Johnson, a hard-line conservative, voted against security assistance for Ukraine in September, but since becoming speaker has been more receptive to funding the country's military, warning that Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot be allowed to prevail.

Still, Johnson said he wanted more information from the White House on the strategy for exiting the conflict.

"What is the objective? What is the endgame in Ukraine? How are we going to have proper oversight of the funds?" the speaker said.

The charged dynamic has lawmakers deeply worried that Congress could fail to pass the funding by the end of the year.

"The world needs to be very concerned about what's happening here," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on Monday night. "Republicans have decided to hold Ukraine funding hostage to a domestic political priority that is amongst the hardest in American politics to solve."

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Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Seung Min Kim contributed reporting.

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