Zelenskyy lobbies Congress for Ukraine aid at center of GOP spending battle
At stake is $24 billion requested by Biden to assist the war-torn nation.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy came to Washington on Thursday to make the case for $24 billion more in U.S. aid tied up in a showdown between House Republicans over spending.
Zelenskyy's first stop was Capitol Hill, where he was lobbying lawmakers behind closed doors. The Ukrainian leader, wearing military green fatigues, was escorted by House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries and later flanked by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on their way to a meeting in the Old Senate chamber.
The aid he's pushing for was requested by President Joe Biden, and he, many congressional Republicans and most Democrats call it vital to Ukraine's efforts to repel Russia's invasion.
Zelenskyy's first visit to Washington last year helped him secure a $50 billion package, but since then a growing number of House Republicans have mounted resistance to Biden's request for more. Polls, too, have shown American support for Ukraine waning as the 19-month war continues.
Exiting his meeting with senators, Zelenskyy told reporters they had a "great dialogue" and thanked the U.S. for its support.
"We talked about a lot of different missions," Zelenskyy said. "We were happy that senators and Congress, the White House, really the United States, of course the people of America, support us, supported from the first day of full-scale war and now together with us and we spoke about everything about support about the situation on the battlefield about our plans."
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who is trying to corral his caucus to consensus on spending before a Sept. 30 government shutdown deadline, said he had questions for the Ukrainian leader ahead of their meeting.
"What is the plan for victory? Where are we currently on the field? The accountability issues that a lot of members have," McCarthy said as he arrived at the Capitol on Thursday.
McCarthy, after sitting down with Zelenskyy, said he answered many of his questions on "accountability" but stressed American priorities should take precedent. The speaker called the meeting "productive" and he was "more than willing" to look at Ukraine aid but didn't commit to bringing it up on the House floor.
“What we're asking for is to fund government for the next month so it doesn't shut down,” McCarthy said. “And in funding the government for the next month let's also secure our border.”
Still, Republican Rep. Mike McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed confidence Ukraine would receive the funding despite Republican hard-liners being adamantly opposed. So far, McCarthy hasn't been wiling to bring up bipartisan funding legislation that would include Ukraine aid for a vote.
"We will get it done," McCaul vowed on the aid. "There are a lot of political machinations right now, but we are going to get it passed."
Zelenskyy next visited the Pentagon, where he met with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and other leaders.
Zelenskyy was greeted with an honor cordon on the Pentagon steps. He also took part in wreath-laying ceremony at the Pentagon's 9/11 memorial.
To cap off the visit, Zelenskyy met with Biden at the White House on Thursday afternoon. The red carpet was rolled out for the Ukrainian president and his wife, Olena Zelenska, as they were greeted by President Biden and first lady Jill Biden at the South Portico.
Sitting in the Oval Office with Zelenskyy, President Biden reiterated his administration's commitment to helping Ukraine defend itself.
"Together with our partners and allies, the American people are determined to see to it that we do all we can to ensure the world stands with you, and that is our overwhelming objective," Biden said.
Zelenskyy said he was in Washington "to strengthen our coalition to defend Ukrainian children, families, our homes, freedom and democracy in the world."
"And I started my day in the US Congress to thank its members and the people in America for their big, huge support," Zelenskyy continued. "I felt trust between us and it allowed us to have frank and constructive dialogue, Mr. President. And this trust and support I’ve found from both chambers and both parties."
In the White House meeting, Biden announced a new military aid package for Ukraine worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
According to a U.S. official, the package will include capabilities to bolster Ukraine's air defenses as well as artillery ammunition and anti-armor capabilities. But the package will not include ATACMS long-range missiles -- a weapon that would allow Ukraine to reach targets up to 190 miles away -- the White House confirmed Thursday.
"The president is constantly speaking both to his own military and to his counterparts in Europe and to the Ukrainians themselves about what is needed on the battlefield at any given phase of the war, and then what the United States can provide, while also ensuring that we are able to provide for our own deferred -- deterrence and defense needs," Jake Sullivan, the president's national security adviser, told reporters. "As he's weighed all that up to date, he has determined that he would not provide ATACMS, but he has also not taken it off the table in the future."
McCaul said Zelenskyy repeated his request for ATACMS and F-16 fighter jets during his meeting with House members, and criticized the administration for withholding key systems. He called on Congress to include language in government funding bills to direct the administration to heed those requests.
"The weapons that he asked for, that this administration won't give, we write that into our appropriations bill, and I think the Democrats at the table ... we all agree," McCaul said.
Zelenskyy's previous visit to Washington included a joint meeting of Congress, where he received standing ovations as he made a passionate plea for more support.
McCarthy said Zelenskyy asked for a "joint session" of Congress for this visit as well, but they didn't have "time" to accommodate him.
"What we're doing for for Zelenskyy is exactly the same thing we did for the prime minister of the UK, the prime minister of Italy," he said. "We'll put in the bipartisan group of members together to be there, no different than we do with anybody else. And this is a little busy week. We're dealing with funding issue. I don't know how we can slip that in in such a short time."
ABC's Ben Gittleson contributed to this report.