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Just 10 days before another government shutdown, Congress expands to-do list with Ukraine, border

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks during a press conference with House Republicans and families of hostages being held in Gaza at the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ten days before a potential government shutdown, Congress is no closer to resolving the standoff and is even complicating the issue with Republican demands for border security changes as a condition for further support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

New House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., said Tuesday that Republicans do not want to close things down, but he is well aware that his predecessor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was ousted as speaker after compromising with Democrats in September to keep federal offices open.

“We certainly want to avoid a government shutdown,” Johnson said at a news conference alongside families with loved ones kidnapped in the Israel-Hamas war.

“It’s a dangerous time around the world right now," he said. "We recognize that, and we’re doing our job.”

Johnson is facing one of his most difficult tests yet, just two weeks into the job. Rather than lead the House Republicans into a strategy, Johnson appears to be crowd-sourcing a way out of the government funding dilemma with his GOP colleagues.

At a closed-door meeting, House Republicans discussed stopgap measures, including a new idea gaining traction: a “laddered” approach that would fund parts of the government until early December and the rest until mid-January, according to Republicans granted anonymity to discuss the private gathering.

The Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, has been working to devise a more comprehensive spending plan that would fund the government at current levels while also considering President Joe Biden's nearly $106 billion request for supplemental money for Ukraine, Israel, the Asia-Pacific region and border security.

“None of this will be easy to do, none of this,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

“The outcome of the next two weeks will hang on the same thing I've emphasized all year — bipartisan cooperation," he said.

Congress is in this budget-shutdown loop because the House and Senate have failed, as they often do, to pass the dozen individual bills needed to fund the various agencies in the federal government. When the new budget year began Oct. 1, lawmakers agreed to approve funding at the current levels until Nov. 17, to allow time to finish up the work.

To complicate matters this time, Republicans are refusing Biden's request to support Ukraine in battling Russia unless the president agrees to their demands to bolster security along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he spoke Monday with Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and did “make it clear to both of them: We have to have a credible solution” to the border.

McConnell said he is aligned with Biden's “comprehensive approach” to funding Ukraine, Israel and other regions, but Republicans are “very serious” about including the border changes. Given that Senate is slimly divided between Democrats and Republicans, "the border needs to be a part of it, if it's going to clear the Senate,” he said.

Biden is seeking nearly $14 billion in border money for holding facilities, asylum officers and other needs, including efforts to stop the flow of deadly fentanyl. Republicans say that does not go far enough and they are demanding policy changes that would make it more difficult for immigrants to claim asylum at the border. They also want to revive building the border wall.

The White House has been discussing some border policy changes, but dismissed the Senate Republican proposal and said it lacked policy provisions that would be important to Democrats, such as a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who came as children. “What we saw from Senate Republicans is not a serious piece of legislation," press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Democrats decried the Republican proposal as a return to Donald Trump-era border policies. They said that the Ukraine money should not be held up as Congress tries to resolve border issues that have been a difficult policy problem for years.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Congress cannot leave Ukraine behind as it confronts Russian President Vladimir Putin. She had blocked a Republican attempt Tuesday to pass the House’s Israel aid bill alone, without other aid.

“Ukraine is at a critical point in a brutal war. We must not give Putin a win and throw Ukraine to the wolves,” she said.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Ukraine's military could soon have "empty rifles.” He said the decisions being made now in Congress could determine whether Kyiv, the capital, remains a city in Ukraine or falls to Russia in the next year.

While Biden had requested $61 billion for Ukraine as part of his package, Republican support is waning. Some Republicans are eying a smaller amount that focuses on military hardware rather than humanitarian and government aid in Kyiv.

Unable to finish their annual government funding work in the two weeks ahead, Congress will almost certainly have no other choice than a stopgap solution to avoid a government shutdown.

While the House and Senate have both approved packages of bills to fund the government, they take different approaches. House Republicans are veering dramatically from the agreement Biden and McCarthy struck earlier this year to set spending levels.

House Republicans are cutting money for most departments except the Pentagon, while the Senate also boosts defense and has shifted some resources. Without compromise, the final products have not been sent to Biden to become law.

Johnson presented several plans to Republican lawmakers at a closed-door meeting, according to lawmakers in the room.

The House’s hard-line conservatives, including many in the Freedom Caucus, mostly favored the two-step “laddered” approach because it would put a tight deadline on Congress to finish up the work and negotiate with the Senate.

But senior Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee warned that it would likely take far longer than to reach an agreement with the Senate on spending levels, especially when an agreement on topline spending that Biden and McCarthy struck is no longer being met.

Lawmakers do not expect any voting until early next week. That puts Congress on a tight deadline to avoid a shutdown.

But House Republicans noted that there is greater consensus around passing a stopgap funding measure than in September, when former McCarthy had to turn to Democrats for support to keep the government open, and then faced the vote to oust him.

The House Republicans spent most of last month struggling to elect a new speaker before settling on Johnson.

“After the last month, if we walk into a shutdown right now, we deserve what we get,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong, a Republican from North Dakota. “So we got to figure this out.”

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Associated Press writers Kevin Freking, Seung Min Kim and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.