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Days from a government shutdown Congress is racing to strike a deal. But aid for Ukraine is stalled

Published: February 28, 2024, 12:09pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — Days before a possible partial government shutdown, negotiators in Congress were working furiously Wednesday to finish up a federal spending plan as Washington joined Ukraine and other American allies around the world in watching and waiting for House Speaker Mike Johnson’s next move.

The new Republican leader is facing the test of his career trying to keep the U.S. government open by Friday’s midnight deadline. At the same time, emergency funding for Ukraine, Israel and Indo-Pacific allies remains stubbornly stalled. President Joe Biden convened leaders Tuesday in hopes of pushing them toward a deal.

“We are very close to getting it done,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said as he opened his side of the Capitol on Wednesday.

Republicans are also are optimistic that a deal can be reached.

Congress is in what has become a familiar cycle of threatened shutdowns and disruptions as Johnson’s hard-right Republicans in his GOP majority strive for steeper spending reductions than Democrats and even some other Republicans are willing to accept.

While Johnson, R-La., inherited a difficult dynamic, it is only being compounded when his majority shrinks further Wednesday when Democrat Tom Suozzi of New York is sworn in after the special election to replace ousted GOP Rep. George Santos. The House is split 213-219, leaving Johnson no room for dissent.

Under the new plan being considered, Congress would approve temporary measures to keep government running until the end of the month, past Friday’s deadline and another upcoming deadline next week. The plan is in flux and contingent on the negotiators wrapping up broader agreements to fund the government through the end of the budget year, on Sept. 30, to avoid further short-term measures — known as a continuing resolutions or CR — or shutdown threats.

“Any CR would be part of a larger agreement to finish a number of appropriations bills, ensuring adequate time for drafting text and for members to review prior to casting votes,” Johnson’s press secretary, Athina Lawson, said in a statement.

Top military officials said at a Pentagon briefing that the delay in passing a 2024 budget has affected the military as it has responded to crises over the past several months without additional new money to do so.

“If we have a much longer CR and we don’t have the supplemental, I think, then we have some very significant costs that we’re going to have to overcome,” said Gabe Camarillo, the Army undersecretary.

Meanwhile, Western allies are keeping close tabs on Johnson to see whether he will consider Biden’s request for $95 billion in emergency funds for Ukraine and the overseas national security needs.

The Senate overwhelmingly approved the $95 billion supplemental request earlier this month that includes $60 billion for Ukraine as its military runs short of munitions to fight Russian President Vladimir Putin. About half the Ukraine money would boost U.S. defense manufacturing as part of the war effort.

Biden hosted Schumer, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the Oval Office along with Johnson and Vice President Kamala Harris.

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The meeting was something of a pile-on as Johnson, who has endorsed Donald Trump in the Republican presidential race, was the only leader reluctant to help Ukraine. Biden pulled Johnson aside for a private conversation.

Democratic leaders upon exiting the meeting called it “intense” and were blunt about the dangers Ukraine is facing.

Johnson, who rejected a U.S. Mexico border security compromise that was eventually stripped from the final Senate product, signaled no change in his position on Ukraine aid. He said the Senate’s package “does nothing” to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, the GOP’s demand in return for helping Ukraine.

“The first priority of the country is our border, and making it secure,” Johnson said.

Apart from the national security package, government funding for agriculture, transportation, military construction and some veterans’ services expires Friday. And funding for the rest of the government, including the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, expires a week later, on March 8, the day after Biden is set to deliver his State of the Union address.

Biden told the lawmakers, “it’s Congress responsibility to fund the government.”

Without funding thousands of government employees could be furloughed and federal government offices and services temporarily shuttered or unavailable.

Biden warned that a government shutdown would damage the economy “significantly. We need a bipartisan solution,” he told them.