Biden, Hill leaders show optimism on shutdown, but have 'intense' talk on Ukraine

Schumer said leaders told Speaker Johnson to "get it done" on Ukraine aid.

ByAlexandra Hutzler and Justin Gomez ABCNews logo
Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Biden, Hill leaders show optimism on shutdown after 'intense' talk
An Oval Office meeting between President Joe Biden and congressional leaders on Tuesday turned tense, according to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, as they discussed Ukraine aid and government funding.

An Oval Office meeting between President Joe Biden and congressional leaders on Tuesday turned tense, according to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, as they discussed Ukraine aid and government funding.

Schumer and House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries expressed optimism a shutdown would be avoided, noting that while some disputes remained, House Speaker Mike Johnson said he did not want funding to lapse. Still, lawmakers have just a few days (until end of day Friday) to find an agreement before some agencies are impacted, and no clear plan has been announced.

Johnson said he also believed they could come to an agreement and that Republicans were working in "good faith" on spending negotiations, though he continues to face some pushback from GOP hard-liners on how to handle the issue.

From left, House Speaker Mike Johnson, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.

But Schumer said the conversation turned "intense" on the subject of Ukraine aid, which has been held up for months amid Republican demands for immigration reforms to address a surge of migrants at the southern border. Schumer said he, Jeffries, Senate Republican leader Mitch Connell, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were all in agreement when it came to assisting Ukraine.

"We said to the speaker, 'Get it done,'" Schumer told reporters outside the White House. "I told him this is one of the moments -- I said I've been around here a long time, there'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'll regret it."

"Because really, it's in his hands," Schumer added.

Johnson exited the meeting still insistent that the top priority be that the U.S. address problems at its own border.

"When I showed up today, my purpose was to express what I believe is the obvious truth, and that is that we must take care of America's needs first," Johnson said.

On the debate around the supplemental request for aid to Ukraine as well as Israel and Taiwan, Johnson said the House was "investigating" options, but was noncommittal on any potential action.

"We will address that in a timely manner but, again, the first priority of the country is our border and making sure it's secure," he said, declining to take questions from the press.

The House speaker also revealed he had a one-on-one meeting with Biden, something he'd been requesting for weeks. The White House previously said it rejected those requests because of Johnson's shifting views on how to deal with the border and Ukraine aid, though Biden said last week he was open to sitting down with the speaker solo.

Johnson called his meeting with the president a "frank and honest" conversation.

House Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
House Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Getty Images/Reuters via CNN Newsource

The two-year mark of Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine passed this weekend. Since Republicans took control of the House, no new aid has been approved by Congress to help Ukraine stave off Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces.

The Senate earlier this month passed a $95 billion stand-alone foreign aid bill that includes roughly $60 billion for Ukraine after House Republicans rejected a bipartisan proposal that tied the funding to immigration reforms.

Johnson dismissed the stand-alone bill for not including border changes, and it has not been brought to the House floor for a vote. On the issue of Ukraine aid itself, Johnson previously said he wants answers from the administration on what exactly the endgame is for Ukraine and how the U.S. funds would be used to reach that goal.

At the beginning of the meeting, Biden called figuring out how to keep the government funded an "important problem" and reiterated his call for Congress to pass legislation to assist Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

"On Ukraine, I think the need is urgent ... I think the consequences of inaction every day in Ukraine are dire," Biden said.

Schumer, who just returned from Ukraine where he met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said he was "shaken" by what he witnessed there. He said Zelenskyy will "lose the war" if the nation doesn't get more weapons from the U.S.

Schumer didn't mince words as he criticized Johnson's approach to the issue, specifically his view that Ukraine aid should wait until the U.S. border is dealt with first.

"There was no logic," Schumer said. "There is logic to solving the border. We want to solve it. But we have to do Ukraine right now ... that can get done quickly because that has broad bipartisan consensus and the border takes more work."

Johnson, however, continued to make the case that Biden could take executive action on the border.

"I told him that again today in person, as I've said to him many times, publicly and privately over the last several weeks," Johnson said. "It's time for action. It is a catastrophe, and it must stop."

Biden has been considering executive action on tightening asylum restrictions, though an administration official stressed potential changes are far from decided. But Johnson criticized the potential move as "election year gimmicks."

-ABC News' Lauren Peller and Allison Pecorin contributed to this report.