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Congressional leaders hope to avoid a shutdown. But Ukraine aid is still unclear

President Biden and Vice President Harris met with House Speaker Mike Johnson and other top congressional leaders in the Oval Office on Feb. 27 to discuss government funding and Ukraine aid.
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President Biden and Vice President Harris met with House Speaker Mike Johnson and other top congressional leaders in the Oval Office on Feb. 27 to discuss government funding and Ukraine aid.

Updated February 27, 2024 at 3:06 PM ET

Congressional leaders emerged from an Oval Office meeting on Tuesday saying they were optimistic that they could reach a deal before a Friday deadline to avert a partial government shutdown.

But the leaders appeared to remain divided on Ukraine funding, with House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., insisting that addressing the situation at the border needed to be the top priority.

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"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 told reporters after the meeting.

The hourlong meeting focused on three contentious issues that have roiled Congress:

  • A series of annual bills required to fund government.
  • An emergency funding bill that includes aid to Ukraine and Israel.
  • The large numbers of migrants crossing the U.S. border with Mexico. Crossings, including requests for asylum, have overwhelmed resources at the borders and in cities and states around the country.

Johnson says he is focused on the border

Earlier this month, the Senate reached a deal that included funding for Ukraine and other national security priorities — including policy measures for the border. The White House backed that bill but Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have refused to hold a vote on the measure. Former President Donald Trump, who is the front-runner to become the Republican nominee for this year's presidential election, opposes the package.

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Johnson said the House would actively look at Ukraine funding "in a timely manner" but also reiterated that Biden needed to take executive action to restrict the number of migrants crossing the southern border. "It's time for action, it's a catastrophe, and it must stop," he said.

Biden, who is traveling to Brownsville, Texas, on Thursday, has said he is looking at options for executive action to curb the flow of migrants. But he told governors last week that existing laws and a lack of funding were limiting his choices.

The border has become a major issue in the presidential election, and Trump is also slated to speak in Texas on Thursday about the border.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer leave the West Wing to speak with reporters after a meeting with President Biden and Republican congressional leaders.
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House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer leave the West Wing to speak with reporters after a meeting with President Biden and Republican congressional leaders.

Schumer said the Ukraine talks were intense

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the talks on Ukraine funding were some of "the most intense I have ever encountered in my many meetings in the Oval Office," with leaders focused on the consequences of Ukraine losing its fight against Russia. "We said to the speaker, 'Get it done,'" he said.

"This is an existential moment for the free world," House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., told reporters.

The leaders seemed more optimistic about the funding bills

On government funding, Johnson said the House was working "around the clock" to reach a deal, which he said he thought was possible.

Funding for four departments is set to expire on Friday, with a second deadline for rest of the departments on Friday, March 8.

To the frustration of lawmakers in both parties, the federal government is currently operating on an extension of a spending deal passed in 2022 by the previous Congress.

Full-year spending bills for 2024 were supposed to be complete by September and are now nearly six months late.

Schumer told reporters that Johnson "said unequivocally he wants to avoid a government shutdown" and said that remaining issues were "not insurmountable."

Jeffries, who leads House Democrats, said there may need to be a bipartisan agreement to extend eight funding bills slated to lapse on March 8 to give time for funding talks to continue.

That could come at a cost to Johnson, who pledged when he took control of the House last fall to stop funding the government with short-term extensions.

But he's already passed two such extensions, relying on Democratic votes to overcome Republican defections, and a third could be required if a spending deal does not materialize in the coming day or so.

Upset, in part, over a previous spending deal struck with the administration, a small faction of House Republicans ousted Johnson's predecessor as speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Asked by reporters after the meeting whether a spending deal could really be possible by Friday's deadline, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, "Hope springs eternal."

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Tamara Keith
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. In that time, she has chronicled the final years of the Obama administration, covered Hillary Clinton's failed bid for president from start to finish and thrown herself into documenting the Trump administration, from policy made by tweet to the president's COVID diagnosis and the insurrection. In the final year of the Trump administration and the first year of the Biden administration, she focused her reporting on the White House response to the COVID-19 pandemic, breaking news about global vaccine sharing and plans for distribution of vaccines to children under 12.
Eric McDaniel
Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.