Biden meets with top Hill leaders as partial government shutdown looms

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The meeting President Joe Biden held with four top congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday was “one of the most intense I’ve ever encountered,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters, as leaders in two branches of government attempt to compromise on Ukraine funding and work to avert a partial shutdown.

Schumer said that “the five of us” – himself, the president, Vice President Kamala Harris, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican – “made it clear how vital this was to the United States.”

Left unsaid in that statement is the implication that House Speaker Mike Johnson was the lone holdout on providing additional aid to Ukraine as it enters the third year in its war against Russia.

Asked what made the meeting so intense, Schumer said it was “the urgency.” He said he was “shaken” by his recent visit to Ukraine because they were “fighting without arms against a brutal dictator.”

“The intensity in that room was surprising to me,” Schumer said, “because of the passion of the president, the vice president, Leader Jeffries, Leader McConnell and myself.”

Schumer expressed frustration that Johnson was tying the aid package to the US Southern border, saying Democrats had “wanted to do border and have a tough secure border plan.” Johnson, he said, “tried to do border for six months and couldn’t come up with a single Democratic vote.”

Ahead of the meeting, Biden stressed the need for continued Ukraine aid. The consequences of failing to pass additional aid, Biden said before the meeting, would be “dire.”

The Senate passed a bill with aid for Ukraine and Israel earlier this month, but Johnson has said he does not plan to bring the bill to the floor, and a significant number of GOP House members oppose further aid to Ukraine.

Before leaving for the White House on Tuesday, Johnson said he was optimistic that a shutdown would be avoided. “No, we are going to work to prevent that,” he told reporters when asked whether there would be a shutdown.

After his meeting with Biden and the other leaders, Johnson said he believes Congress “must take care of America’s needs first,” before addressing foreign aid, including specifically addressing the situation at the border — despite refusing to hold a vote on a bipartisan Senate bill aimed at doing just that.

The Republican speaker has drawn criticism from the Biden administration for refusing to hold a vote on the Senate-passed national security supplemental aid package, which includes funding for the border in addition to aid for Ukraine and Gaza.

Johnson - who also told reporters he met privately with Biden “for a period of time,” in the Oval Office after Tuesday’s meeting with congressional leaders - did not respond to questions on whether he’d put the legislation to a vote on the House floor.

But he put the onus on the White House, insisting Tuesday he believes Biden “can take executive authority right now, today,” to address the border.

In a floor speech Monday, Schumer pressed House Republican leadership to “resist basing our choices on what people like Donald Trump want Congress to do” and pass critical funding bills before a partial government shutdown or a collapse in Ukraine in its war against Russia.

McConnell warned Monday that a partial shutdown would be “harmful to the country” and argued that it is “entirely avoidable” if the House and the Senate can work together.

Senators returned to Washington, DC, on Monday, but the House won’t be back until Wednesday, leaving little time ahead of a fast-approaching Friday deadline.

Lawmakers had hoped to release the text of a bipartisan spending deal Sunday evening, but the bill has yet to be unveiled and high-level disagreements over policy issues remain as Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, is under immense pressure from his right flank to fight for conservative wins.

Congress is confronting a pair of shutdown deadlines – on March 1 and March 8 – after lawmakers passed a short-term funding bill in January. At the end of the day Friday, funding will expire for a series of key government agencies if lawmakers do not act.

Johnson has offered to move a stopgap spending bill to buy negotiators more time to hammer out a longer-term spending agreement ahead of Friday’s first funding deadline, according to sources familiar with the matter. The speaker’s proposal to the White House, first reported by Punchbowl News, would move that first funding deadline for four government agencies from March 1 to March 8, and kick the rest to March 22.

A spokesperson for the speaker’s office, however, cautioned that Johnson would be willing to move another continuing resolution only if lawmakers can come to a larger agreement on spending.

“Any [continuing resolution] 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,” the spokesperson said.

In the House, Johnson has little room to maneuver with a historically narrow majority and an increasingly combative right flank.

Hardline conservatives have revolted over the chamber’s passage of earlier stopgap funding bills and over a topline deal the speaker struck with Schumer to set spending close to $1.66 trillion overall.

Johnson won the gavel after conservatives ousted former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in a historic vote last year, raising the question of whether the Louisiana Republican may at some point face a similar threat against his speakership.

Funding extends through March 1 for a series of government agencies, including the departments of Agriculture, Energy, Transportation, Veterans Affairs, and Housing and Urban Development, as well as the Food and Drug Administration and other priorities such as military construction.

An additional set of government agencies and programs are funded through March 8, including the departments of Justice, Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, State, Education, Interior, and Health and Human Services, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the legislative branch.

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Manu Raju, Melanie Zanona, Kristin Wilson, Morgan Rimmer, Haley Talbot, Donald Judd and Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.

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