Border fight in Senate raises risks for passage of Ukraine aid

Bipartisan talks on a border security package are complicating work on an emergency spending package requested by the Biden administration, raising more questions about whether Congress will find a way to provide aid to Ukraine by the end of the year.

A group of senators, including Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), have discussed the potential contours of a border item, but differences over the contours of a border deal are putting the whole package in jeopardy.

Republicans are pressing for the talks to be centered narrowly on the border and argue that any bill that does not deal with decreasing the number of people crossing the border will not fly with their members.

Across the aisle, Democrats are demanding that Republicans deal not just with border security but with measures that would allow people to immigrate into the country.

It’s a seemingly intractable divide that has long bedeviled lawmakers in both parties, and it now endangers the aid to Ukraine.

“There’s a reason why we haven’t done bipartisan immigration reform in 40 years,” Murphy told reporters Thursday.

Murphy, well-known for his advocacy for gun control, said the border talks feel “harder” than last year’s gun safety negotiations, which did end with a deal.

“I’m not confident we’ll get there,” he said. “This is still a bit of a triple bank shot.”

The foursome, along with other members who are pitching in with talks, have been working throughout the weekend on the border portion of the emergency supplemental spending package.

Murphy told reporters that he wants a deal before lawmakers break for the Thanksgiving recess, while Tillis is aiming for one by the end of the year. The North Carolina Republican exclaimed “oh gosh no” when asked about striking a deal before Thanksgiving.

Republicans are adamant that this bill will not include immigration items that Democrats will want as part of any package. When The Hill asked Lankford about the negotiations, he made it clear the talks were about the border and not immigration.

“It really is,” Lankford said. “It’s a national security bill, so we’re dealing with all national security issues.”

“We’re talking about border security,” said Tillis, who noted that items like citizenship for Dreamers is off the table in this series of talks.

“That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about fixing a problem that’s so pronounced at the border that we can’t even have a discussion about that population right now because this administration’s allowed the problem to get so bad.”

Murphy repeatedly declined to delve into the talks with reporters this week, but he indicated that without some Democratic priorities garnering inclusion that center on nonborder issues, the bill will have trouble getting across the finish line.

“Our party doesn’t view the issue of immigration as just an issue that’s happening at the border,” he said. “We care about Dreamers, and we care about how long it takes to get a final conclusion. We care about legal immigration numbers.”

Another big question is whether anything the Senate negotiators can agree to would pass muster with House Republicans.

Senators engaged on a possible immigration component ahead of the Sept. 30 government funding deadline to potentially grease the skids of a bill with the House GOP, but that effort was quickly dropped as negotiators in the Senate realized nothing they could pass would do the trick for them.

“I don’t even have confidence in a given week whether I’m going to be dealing with the same Speaker,” Tillis said when asked about concerns with the House. “So right now I’m just trying to solve it in the Senate.”

One Senate source noted that the group has been discussing the issue for much of the year, which included a visit to the border in January.

A group of Senate Republicans last week unveiled a border proposal based largely on H.R. 2, the House GOP’s bill, that would curtail border access and set tighter restrictions on those seeking asylum. Murphy told reporters that the group is “not working off of that” blueprint, but Senate Republicans are increasingly coming under pressure to adopt portions of that proposal.

The Heritage Foundation sent a memo to top Senate staffers late last week panning the talks, arguing that the current legislative item being discussed “falls woefully short.”

“It omits key H.R. 2 provisions, is poorly drafted, and sets a trap for Democrat political cover tradeoffs in negotiations that will do little to address the crisis,” the memo read.

Without an immigration deal, it is unlikely that Ukraine aid would move given the growing skepticism within the GOP and conservative ranks as part of a supplemental that would also include aid for Israel, Taiwan and humanitarian purposes.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had been in lockstep with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) but tossed his support behind a border component in a bid to bring enough of his conference around to back the $105 billion supplemental. While the other parts of the supplemental are widely popular, headlined by the aid for Israel, it’s Ukraine and the border that will shape the supplemental in the near term.

“When we address that crisis, then it will help provide the votes for security aid for Ukraine,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). “The reality is if President Biden wants Ukraine aid to pass, we’re going to have to have substantial border policy changes.”

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