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Ukrainian President Zelenskyy courts Washington for aid amid some GOP Resistance

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was in Washington today asking Congress and President Biden for more military and economic aid for his country to defend itself against Russia's ongoing invasion. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says Zelenskyy told senators the stakes couldn't be higher.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: Mr. Zelenskyy said, if we don't get the aid, we will lose the war.

SUMMERS: For more on Zelenskyy's visit, we're joined now from the White House by NPR senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hey, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: So Tam, Zelenskyy put the request for support in some very stark terms there. But this war has now dragged on for 18 months. Is he getting the same kind of reception that he did the last time that he visited Washington?

KEITH: Last time was in December. And Zelenskyy made a surprise trip, and there was a lot of fanfare. He delivered an address to a joint session of Congress. He and President Biden held a joint press conference at the White House. This time, there was still some ceremony, but the Ukrainian president simply isn't getting the same kind of welcome. Zelenskyy met with a big group of senators, and he met with key House members. But he didn't get an invite to address the full House of Representatives, where Speaker Kevin McCarthy is struggling to wrangle the far-right contingent of his Republicans. And there was no White House press conference this time either.

We've seen these fissures forming. Early on, supporting Ukraine was politically quite easy, and it still is for Democrats. But there's now a small but loud group of Republicans in Congress who oppose sending any more money to Ukraine. Twenty-eight of them, between House and Senate, announced today that they would oppose the request that Biden had made for funding, asking a series of questions about how the war effort is going and what President Biden's exit strategy is. And that does reflect what polls show about Republican voters and their increasing skepticism of U.S. spending in Ukraine.

SUMMERS: OK. And Tam, what about Zelenskyy's ask - what does he want, and how likely is he to get it?

KEITH: So Zelenskyy had some specific requests for weapons systems and military equipment. But more broadly, he is urging Congress to approve the $24 billion in emergency assistance the White House requested back in August. And this supplemental funding request is getting wrapped up into that much larger drama over funding the federal government for next year. So at the moment, House Republicans can't even seem to pass anything, much less a Ukraine funding bill, where there's internal dissent. But Republican Michael McCaul, who's chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed confidence after meeting with Zelenskyy that, once they work through the current political machinations, something will pass.

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MICHAEL MCCAUL: They need it, and they're going to get it. Like I said, you know, the majority support this. I know there's some dissension on both sides, but I said a war of attrition is not going to win this. That's what Putin wants 'cause he wants to break the will of the American people and the Europeans.

KEITH: He says Republicans want to see more accountability about how the money is being spent, and they want a plan for victory from the White House - though, I have to say, such a plan is unlikely to come because the president has said many times, this is Ukraine's war to fight, and they are the ones that have to set the terms for how the war ends.

SUMMERS: As you mentioned, Tam, all of this is wrapped up with the government funding fight going on here in Washington. But as a matter of timing, how soon does Ukraine need the money and the weapons that Zelenskyy is asking Washington for?

KEITH: So all year, the White House has been announcing new weapons deliveries to Ukraine every few weeks or so. There was one announced today. But that is all coming out of funding that was approved by Congress a long time ago - before Republicans controlled the House. That pot of money is set to run out at the end of this month - at the very same time, indeed, that the government could shut down if Congress doesn't figure out something. So let's say Congress does approve that $24 billion that the White House is asking for. That will only last Ukraine through the end of this calendar year, so we could be back around Christmas because Ukraine is going to need more money.

SUMMERS: NPR senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thank you.

KEITH: 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.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.