Biden warns of ‘dire’ Ukraine fate in White House showdown

Published February 27, 2024
US President Joe Biden (R) and Vice President Kamala Harris (3rd L) meet with House Speaker Mike Johnson (2nd L) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (L) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on February 27, 2024. — Reuters
US President Joe Biden (R) and Vice President Kamala Harris (3rd L) meet with House Speaker Mike Johnson (2nd L) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (L) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on February 27, 2024. — Reuters

US President Joe Biden warned top congressional leaders on Tuesday of the dire cost of failing to give Ukraine military aid as he hosted high-stakes talks at the White House.

The rare Oval Office meeting escalated efforts to unlock billions of dollars of stalled assistance for Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion — and to avert a government shutdown at home.

“On Ukraine, I think the need is urgent,” said Biden, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris, adding that the “consequence of inaction every day in Ukraine is dire.”

House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Donald Trump ally who leads a razor-thin Republican majority, has refused to allow a vote on a so-called supplemental funding bill in which Biden has asked for new aid to Ukraine.

Biden met Johnson and his Democratic counterpart Hakeem Jeffries, as well as the Senate’s Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and opposition chief Mitch McConnell.

The showdown comes after President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Ukraine desperately needs continued support from the West to defeat Russia’s invasion, and voiced hope the United States would approve the stalled package that includes $60 billion of weapons and other aid.

Moscow is currently mounting heavy attacks on Ukrainian troops, who are struggling with an ammunition shortage as skeptical Republicans in the House of Representatives block aid.

Trump, Biden’s likely rival in November’s presidential election, is pressuring his party to deny further Ukraine funding until the United States has addressed his top campaign issue — a surge in illegal immigration at the US-Mexican border.

Many Republicans, though, are believed to want to back Ukraine’s fight.

“There is a strong bipartisan majority in the House standing ready to pass this bill if it comes to the floor,” Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, told CNN. “And that decision rests on the shoulders of one person — and history is watching whether Speaker Johnson will put that bill on the floor.”

‘Act now’

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, US lawmakers were overwhelmingly in favor of arming the pro-Western former Soviet republic, which denuclearised in the 1990s after gaining assurances from the West over its security.

The Senate has remained largely supportive and recently passed a package pairing the Ukraine funding with help for Israel’s military and democratic Taiwan. But this then died in the House.

“Now is the time for action. Speaker Johnson cannot let politics or blind obeisance to Donald Trump get in the way,” Schumer, who led a trip to western Ukraine last week, said in a letter to colleagues.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also called Tuesday for Congress to green-light the aid.

The House “must act now” to help Ukraine and “to protect our national security interests and the values we and our allies and partners all share,” she told a press conference ahead of a meeting of the G20 finance ministers in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The White House meeting will also address a partial government shutdown looming Friday night, as Congress still hasn’t approved the 12 annual spending bills that make up the federal budget, almost five months into the 2024 fiscal year.

Without a resolution, a full government shutdown would come the following Friday — a day after Biden’s annual State of the Union address.

The two sides have been negotiating daily and had hoped to release the text on Sunday for the first four spending bills covering about a quarter of the budget, including agriculture, veterans, transport, and housing.

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