Senate Republicans distance themselves from border policy bill, leaving aid for Ukraine in doubt

Feb 5, 2024, 6:06 PM | Updated: 6:07 pm

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., maneuvers past reporters asking about the Senate border s...

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., maneuvers past reporters asking about the Senate border security bill as he arrives at his office in the Capitol, in Washington, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. Johnson has declared the bipartisan bill "dead on arrival" in the House. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing a torrent of criticism from conservatives, Senate Republicans on Monday distanced themselves from a bipartisan proposal intended to clamp down on illegal border crossings, signaling a likely defeat in Congress that would leave leaders with no clear path to approve wartime aid for Ukraine.

Senate negotiators on Sunday night released a $118 billion package of border enforcement policy and funding for Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies, hoping that the details would win over skeptics. The bill represented a rightward tilt in Senate negotiations over border measures, yet the backlash was intense from conservatives. They savaged the border policy proposal as insufficient, with former President Donald Trump leading the charge.

“This is a gift to the Democrats. And this sort of is a shifting of the worst border in history onto the shoulders of Republicans,” Trump, the likely Republican presidential nominee, said Monday on “The Dan Bongino Show.” “That’s really what they want. They want this for the presidential election so they can now blame the Republicans for the worst border in history.”

Many Senate Republicans — even those who have expressed support for Ukraine aid and the contours of the border policy changes — raised doubts Monday they would support the package. A private Republican meeting was scheduled in the evening to discuss it.
Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, exited a meeting with other GOP leaders and told reporters, “I think the proposal is dead.”

Still, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer moved toward a key test vote on Wednesday.

“The actions here in the next few days are an inflection point in history,” the New York Democrat said in a floor speech Monday afternoon. “The security of our nation and of the world hangs in the balance.”

Schumer worked closely with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on the border security package after the Kentucky Republican had insisted on the pairing as a way to win support for Ukraine aid. The Democratic leader urged his colleagues across the aisle to “tune out the political noise” and vote yes.

“For years, years our Republican colleagues have demanded we fix the border. And all along they said it should be done through legislation. Only recently did they change that when it looks like we might actually produce legislation,” he said.

Both leaders have emphasized for months the urgency of approving tens of billions of dollars for Ukraine’s fight, saying that the U.S.’s ability to buttress democracies around the world was at stake. Yet with the funding stuck in Congress, the Defense Department has halted shipments of ammunition and missiles to Kyiv.

McConnell said in a floor speech that “it’s now time for Congress to take action” to meet global challenges, even as he decried President Joe Biden’s handling of the border that has seen historic numbers of migrants crossing illegally.

“The gaping hole in our nation’s sovereign borders on President Biden’s watch is not going to heal itself,” the Republican leader said.

Biden, speaking to reporters at a Las Vegas meeting with members of a culinary union, noted that Congress has not approved his funding requests for more Border Patrol agents and immigration judges to handle the number of migrants. “We need help,” he said. “Why won’t they give me the help?”

“Everything in that bipartisan bill gives me control,” Biden said, adding that he was disappointed the border legislation does not address the fate of immigrants who as children entered the U.S. without authorization.

House Speaker Mike Johnson has already called the proposal “dead on arrival” if it passes the Senate, but Biden urged the Republican speaker to “pay attention to what the Senate’s doing.”

The White House has also said Biden would veto a House bill that would only send military aid to Israel, criticizing it as a “cynical political maneuver” that excludes funding for Ukraine, the border and other national security needs.

Johnson, along with the rest of the House’s top GOP leaders, said in a joint statement Monday they were opposed to the legislation because “it fails in every policy area needed to secure our border and would actually incentivize more illegal immigration.”

The statement from Johnson and Reps. Steve Scalise, Tom Emmer and Elise Stefanik pointed to a provision in the bill that would grant work authorizations to migrants who qualify to enter the asylum system. They also argued that it would endorse a “catch and release” policy by placing migrants who enter the asylum system in a monitoring program while they await the final decision on their asylum claim.

Under the proposal, migrants who seek asylum, which provides protection for people facing persecution in their home countries, would face a tougher and faster process to having their claim evaluated. The standard in initial interviews would be raised, and many would receive those interviews within days of arriving at the border.

Final decisions on their asylum claims would happen within months, rather than the often years-long wait that happens now.
But the House Republican leaders said, “Any consideration of this Senate bill in its current form is a waste of time.”

Still, the GOP’s chief negotiator on the bill, Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, implored his colleagues to take another look at the legislation and consider the ramifications beyond the presidential election.

“My focus is what can we do right now — regardless of who’s president now, four years from now, or 10 years from now — what can we do to be able to fix problems in the law to be able to make sure long-term we have a better border,” he said.

The National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents Border Patrol agents, on Monday endorsed the proposal and said it would drop illegal border crossings nationwide. The group in 2020 endorsed in Trump and has been highly critical of Biden’s border policies.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona independent who was central to crafting the proposal, said, “For me, this is a very simple choice: Do you want to secure the border or do you not?”

Several Democrats have also come out against the bill and take issue with the restrictions on asylum seekers. Immigration advocates have also said the bill would cut off important due process rights for people who have fled to the U.S. to escape often harrowing violence.

But Democrats have largely warmed to the package as they look to cities and local governments that have sometimes been overwhelmed by the increase in migration in recent years.

Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, the lead Democratic negotiator for the bill, said, “I think this country is crying out for the parties to stop fighting over immigration and just get something done that’s going to better control the border and fix our broken immigration system.”

Associated Press writers Darlene Superville in Las Vegas and Kevin Freking in Washington contributed.

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Senate Republicans distance themselves from border policy bill, leaving aid for Ukraine in doubt