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As Ukraine's war drags on and a D.C. shutdown looms, Zelenskyy makes his case for aid

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrives in the U.S. Capitol Thursday alongside House Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York.
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrives in the U.S. Capitol Thursday alongside House Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York.

Updated September 21, 2023 at 5:12 PM ET

On a day when Russian missiles struck energy infrastructure across his country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrived in Washington, D.C., to make his renewed case for American aid to Ukraine to a deeply divided Congress preoccupied with a looming government shutdown.

Zelenskyy's reception in Congress was emblematic of the division between the two chambers as an end-of-the-month deadline to pass a government spending bill approaches — with a $24 billion White House request for funding to Ukraine hanging in the balance.

Senate leaders offered their unified support, as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and top Republican Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., both joined the president for a long and public walk to a meeting in the grand Old Senate Chamber. Dozens of senators from both parties attended the meeting.

It was a clear contrast to his reception in the House, where Republicans are split on aid to Ukraine over concerns that the war could drag on and questions about how previously appropriated money has been spent. While House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries walked the halls with Zelenskyy, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., declined to join them for public photos amid calls by some members of his caucus to deny new funding.

"There was just a single sentence that summed it all up, and I'm quoting him verbatim. Mr. Zelenskyy said, 'If we don't get the aid, we will lose the war.' That's a quote," Schumer said.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy (center) walks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., (left) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., during his Capitol visit on Thursday.
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President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy (center) walks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., (left) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., during his Capitol visit on Thursday.

From the White House, public support for Ukraine has not wavered. In an afternoon meeting with Zelenskyy, Biden announced a new package of military assistance aimed at helping harden Ukraine's forces ahead of the winter months, including on air defense capabilities, ammunition and cluster munitions.

"Together with our partner and allies, the American people are determined to see to it that we do all we can to ensure the world stands with you," Biden said.

Zelenskyy also traveled to the Pentagon to discuss the war with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III.

His arrival came hours after a wave of Russian missile attacks on energy and civilian infrastructure across Ukraine killed at least two and injured dozens. Ukrenergo, a grid operator in Ukraine, reported power outages in about 400 cities and towns.

On his Telegram account, Zelenskyy thanked first responders and nodded to anti-missile systems donated by countries such as the United States. "More air defense. More sanctions. More support for Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines. Russian terror must lose," he wrote.

Zelenskyy arrived in Washington wearing his trademark military green outfit, trading his usual T-shirt for a button-up.

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcome Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the South Portico of the White House on Thursday.
Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcome Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the South Portico of the White House on Thursday.

New funding to Ukraine is tied up in the fight over a possible shutdown

Since the Russian invasion in February 2022, no country has provided more funding to Ukraine than the United States. Total aid to Ukraine has topped $112 billion, with another round of funding currently tied up in Congress.

Appetite to send new funds to Ukraine, among congressional lawmakers and the public alike, has begun to falter as the war enters its 20th month. A much-anticipated counteroffensive that began in June is still well short of Ukraine's stated goals, with just a month or two left before winter sets in.

Biden has asked Congress to approve $24 billion in new aid to Ukraine. That new funding would support Ukraine from the start of the next fiscal year on October 1st through the end of 2023.

But it has no obvious path to passage in the near term due as Congress nears its deadline to approve new spending or face a government shutdown.

Far-right House Republicans have shown little appetite in approving a bill, and McCarthy's leadership seat could be in danger.

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Although Democrats are mostly unified behind the president in support for additional aid, more Republicans have started to voice their discontent.

On Thursday, a group of 29 Republican senators and representatives, led by Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio and Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, announced they would oppose Biden's $24 billion request.

"The American people deserve to know where their money has gone to. How is the counteroffensive going? Are the Ukrainians any closer to victory than they were six months ago? What is our strategy, and what is the president's exit plan?" they wrote in a letter addressed to the White House's budget director. "It would be an absurd abdication of congressional responsibility to grant this request without knowing the answers to these questions."

Despite the dissenters, the "majority of the majority" supports the additional funding, said Rep. Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, speaking to reporters Thursday after meeting with Zelenskyy.

Still, he added: "We can't afford a war of attrition. We need a plan for victory, and we need to do it soon."

Like Congress, the American public is split in support for additional aid. A CNN poll last month showed that 71% of Republicans oppose new funding while 62% of Democrats support it.

Zelenskyy's visit comes the day after a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York, where he urged the council to oust Russia as a permanent member. "Humankind no longer pins its hopes on the U.N. when it comes to the sovereign borders of nations," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 20, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
The original version of this story correctly said that 29 Republican lawmakers signed a letter to the White House's budget director announcing they would oppose President Biden's $24 billion funding request. At one point, the story was mistakenly changed to say the letter had 28 signatories. The original figure of 29 signatories has been restored.
Becky Sullivan
Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.