“We cannot fail to fund Ukraine,” said Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet walking back to his office in the U.S. Capitol earlier this week.
But when that funding might come — and even if it comes at all — is an open question right now. Congress is inching closer to ending the year without passing a $110 billion national security supplemental spending package that includes aid for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and the U.S. southern border.
It’s an important issue for Bennet, in part, because of his family history. His mother was born to a Jewish family in Warsaw in 1938 and survived the Holocaust after her parents got her out of the Warsaw Ghetto.
He said he knows “what can happen to people, innocent people that are living in places like that, when they’re abandoned or ignored by powerful countries that could help make a difference.”
“For me personally, this… is a battle of freedom and for democracy,” said Bennet. In September, he held up a short-term government funding bill because it didn’t include additional Ukraine aid, but relented after getting a bipartisan commitment to sustain funding to Ukraine, which still hasn’t come to fruition. That impasse is also why he broke with the rest of Senate Democrats and voted against the most recent short-term government funding bill, which also didn’t include Ukraine aid.
“[The Ukrainians] have won battle after battle that nobody ever thought they could win,” said Bennet. “They’ve battled [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to a stasis on the front lines, which I guess some people look at as a failure. I don’t see that as anything but a victory by the Ukrainian people.”
Earlier this week, the Biden administration warned Congress that, without action, U.S. funding for weapons and assistance to Ukraine will run out by the end of the year. Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young wrote that would “kneecap” Ukraine on the battlefield.
While a majority of lawmakers in both chambers want additional aid for Ukraine and aid for Israel, the sticking point to reaching a deal is a security issue closer to home: the southern border.
Republicans are seeking policy changes that would cut dramatically the number of border crossings, while Democrats want more funding to process and decide asylum claims at the border.
To hammer home how difficult it will be to reach an agreement, on Wednesday the Senate failed to clear a procedural hurdle on the supplemental spending bill largely along party lines.
The failure came mere hours after President Joe Biden urged Congress to pass the additional funding before the holiday break.
“We can’t let Putin win,” Biden said during his appeal for more aid for Ukraine. “It’s in our overwhelming national interest and international interest of all our friends.”
Biden addressed the border security issue, saying he was willing to support real solutions at the border, including more border agents, more immigration judges, and more asylum officers, but that Congress needs to fix the “broken immigration system.”
He added the final package will have to be negotiated. “Republicans think they can get everything they want without any bipartisan compromise. That’s not the answer.”
“I know we have our divisions at home. Let's get past them. This is critical,” Biden said. “Petty partisan, angry politics can't get in the way.”
Bennet said the inability — or dysfunction — of Congress to help get additional aid to Ukraine and replenish the U.S.’s own stockpiles sends a message to Putin. The Russian leader may be losing on the battlefield, but Bennet said Putin “is probably growing increasingly confident that he could win on Capitol Hill’s battlefield.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has been saying for weeks that legislation that doesn’t include Republicans’ desired border policy changes would not garner enough votes from his caucus to pass the Senate.
“Senate Republicans know this isn’t an either-or proposition. We know that national security begins with border security,” he said on Wednesday. “I’ve spent months highlighting the undeniable links between the threats we face in Europe, in the Middle East, and in the Indo-Pacific. But Democratic leadership appears to be telling us today that they’re willing to risk each of these urgent priorities to avoid fixing our own borders right here at home.”
Immigration and border security have become intractable political issues in Congress that have stymied both parties for more than a decade.
The main Senate negotiators, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, and Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are expected to continue talking through the weekend.
Murphy said, “As discouraged as I have been at this process, I’m an eternal optimist and I believe that sometimes there are moments when this place can’t fail. This feels like one of those moments.”
Lankford also told reporters that a deal on border security and Ukraine could pass by this month.
Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper said when it comes to logjams like this, nothing moves until suddenly everything moves.
“All the elements of a deal are there,” said Hickenlooper. “Democrats have a lot to gain by actually addressing the border issues. Republicans have a tremendous amount to gain by making sure we support our military and make sure we support Ukraine and Israel, some of our closest allies. There’s no reason we can’t put this deal together. No logical reason except the magic of the Capitol.”
Bennet, who has also been part of the group involved in the negotiations, said it might be time for two people not at the table to broker a deal: Biden and McConnell, who historically have been able to reach agreements before.
“Under the current circumstances, I don’t see a way to cut this Gordian Knot unless Joe Biden and McConnell are willing to put their heads together and to do it, and rely on us for advice and to bounce ideas off of and move quickly,” Bennet said, “because we’re not going to have a ton of time here when we come back.”
And that’s even before any deal gets to the Republican-controlled House, which will almost certainly have its own challenges in passing the supplemental package if it does not include provisions similar to that chamber’s partisan border package bill, H.R. 2, it passed in May with two Republicans and all Democrats voting against it.
That proposal would continue border wall construction, reinstate the “remain in Mexico” policy and severely restrict who can seek asylum.
As of now, Congress is only scheduled to put in one more week of work before leaving for the holidays.
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