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Ukraine's Zelenskyy visits Washington for a last-ditch effort to secure U.S. aid

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took his appeal for more U.S. funding for his war against Russia to Capitol Hill today. After Zelenskyy visited with lawmakers from both parties, he headed to the White House to sit down with President Biden.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Congress needs to pass supplemental funding to Ukraine before they break the holiday recess, before they give Putin the greatest Christmas gifts they could possibly give him.

SHAPIRO: NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh is at the Capitol. Hi, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What kind of reception did lawmakers give Zelenskyy?

WALSH: A pretty warm one. Senators I talked to from both parties said Zelenskyy gave a really compelling presentation today. He heard bipartisan support in the room for his effort to defeat Russia. Zelenskyy walked through his military strategy and talked about his country's will to wage the battle against Russia. He even stressed that they have 40- and 50-year-olds signing up to fight in the war. Zelenskyy did field some questions about corruption in his own government. There are some Republican lawmakers who worry that the billions of dollars of additional U.S. aid could be spent on things other than weapons or humanitarian aid. But the Ukrainian president stressed he's put reforms in place to show transparency.

SHAPIRO: Did he talk about the current fight on the Hill, which is Republican insistence that money for Ukraine be tied to U.S. border security?

WALSH: He largely stayed away from that - getting into any domestic politics - and stuck to his message. He just really needs America's continued support. But Republicans are staying united to try to press for tying aid to a border deal, even ones who are strong supporters of Ukraine. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham told reporters he told Zelenskyy this morning in the meeting that he backed the war in Ukraine, but he told Zelenskyy he's worried about the warnings about all kinds of threats to the U.S. that are coming from all over the world, including at the border with Mexico.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: I owe it to the people of South Carolina - and every Democrat does, too - to secure your own border. The FBI director told us last week that the lights are blinking everywhere. So it's not about helping Ukraine. It's about not helping us.

SHAPIRO: And what can you tell us about Zelenskyy's meeting with House speaker Mike Johnson? Did the speaker discuss where he stands on the funding package?

WALSH: Johnson said after the meeting he had a good meeting, that he stands with Zelenskyy against what he called Putin's brutal invasion. Johnson does have a record of voting against Ukraine money, but now he's open to it. But the speaker reiterated that any new money has to be paired with changes that reduce the number of people who are entering the U.S. at the southwest border.

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MIKE JOHNSON: We needed clarity on what we're doing in Ukraine and how we'll have proper oversight of the spending of precious taxpayer dollars of the American citizens. And we needed a transformative change at the border. Thus far, we've gotten neither.

SHAPIRO: And so, Deirdre, is Zelenskyy going to go home to Ukraine empty-handed?

WALSH: No. I mean, he's not getting everything he's hoping to get. I mean, President Biden did announce this afternoon that he's directing the Pentagon to send another $200 million from the money that's already been approved by Congress. But this broader package of 61 billion is really just stalled out. The top Republican negotiator in the Senate who's working on this border deal, Jim Lankford from Oklahoma, says they're not going to get a deal this week.

One thing that did change today is the talks do seem to be getting more serious. Top Senate leadership aides and White House aides are now involved, and they are narrowing down the types of border policies they're trying to address eventually to be paired with this broader national security funding package. A Senate majority leader told the speaker that he should keep the House in session as the Senate bipartisan talks continue. But without any sign that there's an actual proposal that can pass, it does look likely this national security package is not going to get through Congress this month.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thank you.

WALSH: Thanks, Ari. 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.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.