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Classified briefing devolves into shouting as senators fight over border provisions in Ukraine-Israel aid package

The US Capitol Dome is seen on Capitol Hill on October 24, 2023 in Washington, DC.Win McNamee/Getty Images

A classified briefing Tuesday on Ukraine devolved into a shouting match about border security as senators described a tense meeting that did little to break the Senate’s stalemate over whether to include tighter immigration policies in the aid package.

The meeting came as Republican senators have warned they are prepared to vote against advancing a more than $100 billion supplemental national security package unless it includes major border policy changes, casting doubt on whether the aid will pass this year.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer gave his description of what unfolded and said the fight over the border erupted when Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, asked GOP Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma to present on the border instead of asking a question about Ukraine to the briefers.

“It was immediately hijacked by Leader McConnell. The first question instead of asking our panelists, he called on Lankford to give a five-minute talk about the negotiations on border,” Schumer said. “Then when I brought up the fact that they could do an amendment and have the ability to get something done on border, they got stuck … they didn’t like it.”

Schumer added, “Even one of them was disrespectful and started screaming at one of the generals and challenging him to why they didn’t go to the border.”

A source in the room told CNN that Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton was shouting.

Pressed if he was among those who yelled, Cotton said, “I did not let Chuck Schumer get away with lying that Republicans have ‘injected border security into a debate about the supplemental bill and it was Joe Biden who … sent us the supplemental bill with border provisions in it.’”

“He had the misfortune of spreading those lies right after someone handed me a microphone,” Cotton added of Schumer.

Cotton also said the briefers “refused to answer any questions about the crisis at the border or what we can do to solve that crisis even though the briefing was labeled by Chuck Schumer’s office as a briefing about the supplemental.”

A spokesperson for Cotton said that the senator directed his fire at Schumer – not a general in attendance or an administration briefer.

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GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said that there was tension early on in the room because “nobody talked about the border.”

“In case you don’t have a television … you would know that most Republicans feel like we need to address the broken border,” he said.

Lankford, one of the lead negotiators on the border policy measures for the national security package, told CNN that the lack of anyone from the Department of Homeland Security at the briefing was an “elephant in the room.”

“There was no one there from DHS,” Lankford said. “It was just obvious, elephant in the room issue of the administration, in their supplemental request – the second-largest element in the supplemental request is for the border. And we had no one there from DHS, and there was apparently no one interested in actually talking about that even.”

Republican senators blasted the briefing as a waste of time as they argued briefers were not going over information that wasn’t already known or available publicly. Some Republicans even walked out early.

“People got up and walked out because this is a waste of time. … They just said ‘This isn’t worth it, this is a joke, you’re not serious about this, I’m going.’ And I don’t blame them,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota. “It was more dramatic because you’ve got an entire political party that appears … willing to flush support for Ukraine and Israel down the drain because they’d rather have a wide-open border than support for Ukraine and Israel.”

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah blasted the briefing as a waste of time.

“We want to help Ukraine and Israel, but we have got to have the Democrats recognize that the trade here, the deal is we stop the open border,” Romney said. “They don’t want to do that. So Republicans are just walking out of the briefing because the people there are not willing to actually discuss what it takes to get a deal done.”

Sen. Roger Marshall, a Republican from Kansas, said that his GOP colleagues wanted to focus more on the border during the briefing and were frustrated with the lack of conversation on the topic.

“I cannot control (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. I cannot (control) what (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelensky is going to do or not do. But we can control our southern border. So let’s control the things that we can control,” Marshall said.

Schumer is planning to move ahead Wednesday with a procedural vote on the president’s supplemental package despite the fact Republicans have vowed to vote against its advancement. Schumer said earlier Tuesday that Republicans are free to bring up a border security package as an amendment, and if it can get 11 Democratic votes, it can pass.

“They have a golden opportunity if they wanted to do border,” Schumer said.

In addition, Zelensky never made his promised appearance by video feed, and several senators say they were not given an explanation as to why he didn’t attend.

Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, told reporters after the briefing that “feelings are running high.”

“Feelings are running high, but we’re at an historic moment,” Warner said. “The intelligence assessments have said for months now that Putin thinks he can out-wait the West and out-wait America, and what I don’t understand from some of my friends, are we willing to prove him right, and the historic consequences of abandoning Ukraine at this moment in time would haunt this country for decades. Who would ever trust our alliances again? I hope we can all take a deep breath.”

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