Speaker Mike Johnson on Wednesday dug in against President Biden’s efforts to revive stalled legislation to send aid to Ukraine, saying the Republican-led House would not entertain it unless Democrats agreed to a far more severe crackdown at the U.S.-Mexico border than they have been willing to consider.
Mr. Johnson’s latest ultimatum cast further doubt on the prospects of Congress’s approving Mr. Biden’s request for tens of billions of dollars in emergency security assistance to help Ukraine fight off Russia.
Republicans have insisted that such a package be paired with measures to clamp down on migration at the southwestern border, and a bipartisan group of senators has made considerable progress on striking a compromise to do so. But the plan has no path to enactment if the House, where a sizable far-right contingent is pressing for even tougher immigration policies, refuses to accept it.
“I told the president what I had been saying for many months, and that is that we must have change at the border, substantive policy change,” Mr. Johnson told reporters after emerging from a meeting with Mr. Biden and other congressional leaders at the White House, adding: “We must insist — must insist — that the border be the top priority.”
Mr. Biden summoned top lawmakers in both parties, including the top-ranking national security committee lawmakers in Congress, in an urgent bid to break a monthslong logjam over the aid to Ukraine
During the meeting, Mr. Biden underscored that Congress needed to pass funding for air defense and artillery capabilities in order for Ukraine to continue to defend itself against Russia’s invasion, according to a statement from the White House, and that doing so quickly would “send a strong signal of U.S. resolve.”
“The president discussed the strategic consequences of inaction for Ukraine, the United States and the world,” the statement said. “He was clear: Congress’s continued failure to act endangers the United States’ national security, the NATO Alliance and the rest of the free world.”
The statement also noted that Mr. Biden “made clear that we must act now to address the challenges at the border.”
Democrats emerged from the meeting saying they were optimistic that a border deal was close to being finalized, paving the way for a breakthrough on Ukraine.
“There was broad agreement in the room that we had to do this in a bipartisan way,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, told reporters. “I am more optimistic than ever before that we come to an agreement. I put the chances a little bit greater than half now, and that’s the first time I can say that.”
Senate Republicans, too, have said they are hopeful of a deal. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, said the Senate could vote as soon as next week on a national security spending bill combining border measures with military assistance for Ukraine and Israel.
“I think it’s time to go ahead with the supplemental, and I’m anticipating that it’ll be before us next week,” Mr. McConnell told reporters just before heading to the White House to meet with Mr. Biden.
But Mr. Johnson’s continued warnings signaled that such a plan might run into a brick wall in his chamber. He noted that House Republicans had already passed a bill that included several of the border changes they would consider vital to any deal, including an end to the policy of paroling migrants trying to enter the United States until their court dates, and a restoration of the Trump-era practice of holding migrants in Mexico when detention centers get too full.
“We are insistent that the elements have to be meaningful,” Mr. Johnson told reporters outside the White House. “The House is ready to act, but the legislation has to solve the problem.”
Mr. Biden had called the meeting to lay out the global consequences if the U.S. reneged on its commitment to helping Ukraine fight off a Russian invasion.
Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, and Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, spent part of the session outlining the stakes for Ukraine, which has relied on the United States to help fuel its war effort and is in danger of running out of resources.
“There was tremendous focus on Ukraine,” Mr. Schumer told reporters, “and an understanding that if we don’t come to Ukraine’s aid, that the consequences for America around the globe would be nothing short of devastating.”
Mr. Johnson, who has repeatedly voted against aid for Ukraine, emerged from the meeting saying that he believed that maintaining assistance to Kyiv was important. But he stressed that Republicans also needed assurances from the White House about the war before they could agree to continue pledging funds to the war effort there.
“We need the questions answered about the strategy, about the endgame and about the accountability for the precious treasure of the American people,” he said, adding that improvements on the border would still have to come first.
John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, noted ahead of the meeting that administration officials had provided multiple classified and unclassified briefings to members of Congress that answer such questions.
“This whole idea of a blank check also is not true,” Mr. Kirby said. “Every single aid package that we provided Ukraine, we have done consultations with Congress.”
Mr. Johnson has long insisted that Republicans need to see changes on the border before they agree to put Ukraine funding to a vote. During the meeting on Wednesday, Democrats directly challenged him, maintaining that the efforts had to proceed together or they would not at all.
“A couple of people in the room who said, ‘Let’s do border first,’” Mr. Schumer told reporters. “We said, ‘We have to do both together.’”
Complicating the picture are deep divisions among Republicans about the package. Leading Senate Republicans have argued for embracing the emerging border compromise, calling it the best chance the G.O.P. has had in years to secure serious border policy concessions from Democrats.
“If we had a 100 percent Republican government — president, House, Senate — we probably would not be able to get a single Democratic vote to pass what Senator Lankford and the administration are trying to get together on,” Mr. McConnell said before the White House meeting, referring to James Lankford of Oklahoma, the lead Republican negotiator. “So this is a unique opportunity to accomplish something in divided government that wouldn’t be there under unified government.”
Border negotiations in the Senate have continued despite Mr. Johnson’s resistance. The bipartisan group of senators has agreed to measures to make it more difficult for migrants to claim asylum after crossing the border, and expanded detention and expulsion powers.
“I’ve been through enough negotiations to know when you’re coming close to finishing, and I feel like we’re there,” said Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, one of the key participants in the Senate talks.
But negotiations have yet to resolve an impasse over limiting parole authority, which the administration uses to allow some migrants who tried to enter the United States illegally to remain in the country and work until their cases can be heard in immigration court. The Biden administration has signaled it is unwilling to dismantle that authority, while Republicans insist they cannot support a deal that fails to cap the number of migrants paroled into the country.
“If we don’t fix parole, there will be no deal,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, told reporters on Wednesday.