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Ukrainian President Zelenskyy is in Washigton to make plea to Congress for funding

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is back in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: Putin must lose. The whole world is watching us.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Nearly a year ago, he made a surprise trip to the U.S., where he was heralded in Congress as a hero, leading a brave fight against Russia's Vladimir Putin. The situation today is quite different.

MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us now to tell us more about why it's quite different and how it's quite different. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So what is President Zelenskyy trying to achieve today?

LIASSON: What he's trying to do, really, is a last-ditch effort to get U.S. funding he says he needs for his country's fight against Vladimir Putin. You just heard him say that. I think today you'll hear Zelenskyy and President Biden both argue that if aid is not forthcoming, Putin may win. This is Zelenskyy's third trip to Washington since Putin invaded Ukraine in February of 2022, and that year, Congress approved more than $112 billion in aid for Ukraine. But that money is almost out, and a lot has changed since then, as you said. Zelenskyy is no longer the hero that he was last year. The Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russia has stalled. Public support here in the U.S. has fallen as the war has dragged on and support among Republicans on Capitol Hill has fallen even faster.

MARTIN: So, you know, traditionally, the Republican Party has seen itself as strong on defense and national security. What happened with Ukraine to change that?

LIASSON: Well, some Republicans in Congress share the animus of their party's leader, former President Donald Trump. He doesn't like Ukraine at all. Remember, his first impeachment in 2019 was over pressure he put on Zelenskyy to give him information he could use against Joe Biden during the election campaign. And he said many positive things about Vladimir Putin. But most Republicans say they want deep concessions on immigration policy in order to vote for this aid and that includes pro-Ukrainian senators like Mitt Romney and Mitch McConnell. And border policy, immigration policy is where these negotiations have focused and where they have stalled.

MARTIN: Why has U.S. border policy become the bargaining chip in this funding battle? It seems unrelated to Ukraine.

LIASSON: It's completely unrelated to Ukraine. But the situation at the border is the top issue for Republican voters. Immigration policy is one of the most intractable issues in U.S. politics. It's something Democrats and Republicans engage on every couple of years and always fail to make headway on. This time around, Republican voters are very concerned about migration across the Southern U.S. border, and they've been joined by blue state governors and mayors who also feel immigration is out of control because they're having a hard time grappling with large numbers of asylum seekers who are being bused into their cities.

Now, Joe Biden says he's willing to discuss compromise. In the past, he has made compromises with Republicans to pass bipartisan bills on infrastructure and microchips and gun safety. But in this case, immigration is such a good issue for Republicans, politically, heading into 2024, they don't have a lot of incentives to make a deal. They can just attack Biden for being soft on immigration. So it's not clear what price Democrats could pay in terms of border policy to get a deal, and that puts Zelenskyy and Biden and Ukraine in a very, very tough spot.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: You're welcome. 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.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.