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Money for Ukraine is losing Republican support in Congress

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Washington heaved a sigh of relief after Congress passed a spending plan to keep the federal government open through the holidays. But it'll be a short-lived break as new anxieties are already brewing over what was left out of the plan - namely new funding for Ukraine. As NPR's Franco Ordoñez reports, there are concerns that deep-rooted divisions over immigration could upend funding for the war there, as well as other national security priorities for the Biden White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR CHIME)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I love that...

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Senator Graham.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Over the last two decades, Senator Lindsey Graham has been part of several failed efforts to pass meaningful changes to the U.S. immigration system. Those include bipartisan efforts, ones with presidential support. Over and over, they all collapsed.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: I know where the bodies are buried and the sweet spots are.

ORDOÑEZ: But he sees a path this time in the interest of helping Ukraine, and provided it's attached to a more narrowly focused plan on border security.

GRAHAM: That's the only path. If you want to help Ukraine, which I do, we've got to secure our border.

ORDOÑEZ: President Biden has asked lawmakers for billions in extra funding for Israel, Ukraine and countering China in the Indo-Pacific. There is broad agreement over the funding for Israel, but the money for Ukraine is losing Republican support. To sweeten the deal, Biden also included $14 billion for the border, including money for new technology, and to hire thousands of new border agents and asylum officers. But that's not enough for some Republicans, who are threatening to withhold Ukraine funding unless there are more structural changes to border policy.

CHUCK SCHUMER: As everyone knows, the biggest holdup right now is Republicans' insistence that they'll only approve Ukraine aid in exchange for immigration items.

ORDOÑEZ: That's Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. He says Democrats are willing to work in good faith, but warns Republicans against trying to push through one-sided proposals.

SCHUMER: Linking any of these bipartisan issues to extremist positions, to extremist poison pills on immigration or any other issue would be a colossal blunder.

ORDOÑEZ: Helping lead the negotiations for the Democrats is Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado. He says Congress should be supporting Ukraine on its own merits, but that he's willing to take necessary steps to ensure Russian President Vladimir Putin is not emboldened.

MICHAEL BENNET: I hear my Republican colleagues say they need something on immigration, and we're going to see whether we can have a meeting of the minds.

ORDOÑEZ: Bennet was part of a group of senators in 2013 who negotiated an overhaul that would have increased border security and created a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. The plan failed in the House. He says the country wouldn't be in this position now if they had passed those measures 10 years ago.

BENNET: It obviously is never going to be as comprehensive as what we did in 2013, but hopefully there are some aspects of this that we can come to an agreement on.

ORDOÑEZ: Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina is helping lead the Republicans in the negotiations. He says it would be a mistake to try to revive those old talks.

THOM TILLIS: If people want to start talking about bigger immigration reform, I'm out. This is not the time to do it. It's too complex.

ORDOÑEZ: The White House says Republicans are playing politics with U.S. national security. The president's plan already includes border security. And John Kirby, a White House spokesman, says funding for Ukraine and Israel should not be held up as a result.

JOHN KIRBY: This is an urgent request.

ORDOÑEZ: Senator Tillis argues what's been proposed is not nearly enough. Republicans want tighter restrictions on asylum and bringing back some Trump-era policies, like the so-called Remain in Mexico program.

TILLIS: Unless we come up with an answer, we're not going to get support of our conference. And if we don't have support of at least half of the Republican conference, just project the math on the House side.

ORDOÑEZ: The two sides are unlikely to come up with any answer soon, especially on such a complex issue like the border. But also, lawmakers have left Washington for the holiday, meaning even small steps will have to wait until after the Thanksgiving break. Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAGGIE BJORKLUND'S "MISSING AT SEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.