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Top senators in shouting match as Republicans accused of derailing Ukraine defence talks

A briefing behind closed doors in the US Senate devolved into a shouting match, according to accounts of the gathering, after Republican senators attempted to pressure Biden administration officials into asking Senate Democrats for concessions on border security policy.

The surprising scene played out on Tuesday afternoon at a classified Senate briefing on Ukraine attended by Senate leaders as well as members of the Intelligence committee, which was originally set to be joined remotely by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

But Mr Zelensky pulled out of the meeting at short notice, citing a last-minute issue that had arisen at home. That apparently left open a window for Republican senators to focus more of Tuesday’s briefing on political matters, which drew the ire of their Democratic counterparts.

According to senators who spoke to reporters after the meeting, Republicans who were present, led by North Dakota’s Kevin Cramer, provoked the Democrats into an argument by asking Cabinet officials including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to make the case that further funding for Ukraine was so necessary that Democrats should make concessions to Republicans on the issue of immigration and border security in order to win their votes for it.

Mr Cramer confirmed this account, telling reporters, “I asked Gen. Brown his best military advice. Is supporting Ukraine and Israel important enough that Democrats could at least consider reluctantly supporting some southern border security?” according to The Hill, referring to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But administration officials refused to take the bait, with the Joint Chiefs chairman responding that he “wanted to talk about Ukraine”, per Mr Cramer’s account.

It’s just the latest sign of how the previously amicable relationships between Democrats and their Republican colleagues in the Senate are breaking down, and how the chamber is beginning to resemble the contentious and bitter landscape of the House of Representatives every day.

Present at Tuesday’s meeting were Senate leaders Chuck Schumer of the Democrats and Mitch McConnell of the Republicans. According to senators’ accounts of the meeting, Mr Schumer accused Republicans of being disrespectful and attempting to hijack the purpose of the briefing. The pleas of Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, for his allies to listen to the GOP delegation went unheard — perhaps because there was no indication that the assembled guests had prepared in any way to negotiate border-related issues at the briefing.

“One of them ... was disrespectful, and started screaming at one of the generals and challenging him why he didn’t go to the border,” Mr Schumer told reporters afterwards. He was apparently referring to Mr Cramer. He added that the briefing was “immediately hijacked by Leader McConnell.”

"The Republicans are under a huge amount of pressure,” he added later. “They tried to sort of hijack the meeting but it didn't work ... it's indicative of a Republican conference that's severely divided and doesn't know what to do."

Turmoil in the upper chamber could spell trouble for efforts to avert the next government shutdown. Two deadlines for Congress to pass further budget measures — thanks to the House’s strategy of continuously passing short-term extensions — are looming in mid-January and early February. Next week, Congress is set to recess for the holidays, with lawmakers not returning until January.

It also raises the question of when, if ever, the upper chamber will be able to reach consensus on the issues of Ukraine, border security and funding for Israel. All three are in question as Republicans grow increasingly resistant to passing any defence funding without Democrats providing funding for further border security measures.

An increasingly vocal Republican contingent in the House is growing resistant to further funding for Ukraine at all, which complicates the issues as newly-appointed Speaker of the House Mike Johnson must work to appease his caucus’s most hardline conservatives to avoid the fate of ex-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who was ousted in a GOP rebellion.