Border-for-Ukraine Deal on Life Support as GOP Opposition Mounts

Michael Robinson Chávez for The Washington Post
Migrants at the wall that separates the United States from Mexico in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

A bipartisan package of border reforms and funding for Ukraine and Israel appeared close to collapse on Monday after the House speaker called it “DEAD,” former president Donald Trump attacked the deal’s main GOP negotiator, and Republican Senate leadership said they would likely vote against proceeding on the bill this week.

The $118 billion bill – which includes sweeping changes to the nation’s asylum system and a mechanism to effectively shut down the border to most migrants when crossings are particularly high – was released after months of negotiations on Sunday night, after many of its GOP opponents had incorrectly labeled it as a boon for migrants.

Following a closed-door meeting of Republican senators on Monday evening, the deal’s chief GOP negotiator Sen. James Lankford (Okla.) said he believed Republicans would likely band together to block the legislation on Wednesday – and that he himself might even vote against it. Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican, said everybody agreed Wednesday’s expected procedural vote was “too soon.”

Some Republican senators, including Lankford, said the conference is discussing whether they would take more time to consider amending the bill after blocking the vote. But immigration reform has proved so toxic for Republican lawmakers that reaching a consensus to change the bill in the near future appears unlikely.

The rapid collapse in support in the Senate reflects the upside-down politics of the border deal among Republicans that began several weeks ago, when Trump began slamming it. The staunchly conservative union for Border Patrol officers endorsed the deal on Monday, saying it would “codify into law authorities that U.S. Border Patrol agents never had in the past.” And immigrant and refugee rights groups, including Amnesty International USA, blasted the legislation as containing “the most extreme anti-immigrant proposals this country has seen in 100 years.”

But a growing number of Republicans on Capitol Hill have painted the legislation as too soft.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and his leadership team – who initially demanded House-passed border reforms be attached to Ukraine funding – spelled out their grievances in a joint statement, saying the legislation “fails” to secure the border and would encourage more illegal immigration.

“Any consideration of this Senate bill in its current form is a waste of time,” they wrote. “It is DEAD on arrival in the House. We encourage the U.S. Senate to reject it.”

Trump has made addressing the border core to his 2024 election message and told Republican lawmakers not to back the bill even before negotiators released the text.

“This is a very bad bill for his career,” Trump said of Lankford, the deal’s lead Republican negotiator, who is among the conference’s most conservative members, in an interview with Dan Bongino on Monday.

“He’s focused on the campaign,” Lankford said when asked on CNN to respond to Trump’s comment. “I’m going to do whatever I can to secure the nation as fast as I can regardless of election cycle.”

Trump and his allies have mischaracterized the bill, which would also allow for the hiring of thousands more asylum and border officers, and an increase in detention beds, as codifying more illegal migration into the country. Lankford called the misrepresentations “ridiculous” in an interview with Fox News on Monday, but several Republican senators said the characterizations had already done their damage with the base.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose staff helped negotiate the deal and who is pushing to find a way to get his members to vote for Ukraine and Israel aid, voiced his support, as did Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a moderate.

“My colleagues know where I stand,” McConnell said earlier on Monday. “They know as well as I do that America’s adversaries in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran are working together to undermine us. And they know that the time has finally come for the Senate to respond with strength.”

But at least 20 Republican senators had signaled their opposition to the deal as of Monday evening, alongside two Democratic senators who blasted it as too draconian on asylum seekers. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) issued a statement saying the United States should not provide another “dollar” to Israel’s war in Gaza, but it’s unclear whether he would vote no to the entire package.

The bill would need 60 votes to overcome its first procedural vote, which Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has suggested will be Wednesday. The House is set to vote on a stand-alone $17.6 billion Israel supplemental aid bill this week, in a move meant to pressure the Senate to winnow down its larger package. The White House issued a statement on Monday saying President Biden would veto the legislation if it made it to his desk.

Some of the Republican no votes include right-wing firebrands such as Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), who called for new Senate Republican leadership – a shot at McConnell – and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), who called the deal “INSANE” in a social media post. But far more telling to the bill’s potential future are comments from some senators who are more in the middle of the Republican conference or who have ties to Republican leadership.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a member of leadership, said the border provision was “in jeopardy.”

“I wish we had given James [Lankford] the benefit of the doubt to take a look at the text before we started speaking our opposition,” Ernst said. “But with that being said, it’s out there now, it’s already influenced the public and so we have to take that into consideration as we move forward.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a McConnell ally, said he has “questions and serious concerns” about the legislation, signaling issues with its path forward in the Senate. Sen James E. Risch (Idaho), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a defense hawk, hinted at his opposition in a social media post, where he called for enforcing the existing laws at the border and stopping “this insanity.”

Sen. Steve Daines (Mont.), the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a member of the leadership team, also said he was against the bill.

Some Republicans pointed to what they see as a “loophole” in the border emergency provision that would allow the president to stop the border closure in a national security emergency, and others to the fact that the legislation would speed up work authorizations for the asylum seekers who pass the new, higher bar, among other concerns.

The bill had already caused division and infighting among Republican staffers on Monday. A meeting of Republican communications staffers turned contentious after a Lee staffer complained to a Lankford staffer about feeling betrayed. The Lee staffer marched out of the meeting, followed by laughter from other aides, according to two people present who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Another meeting of Republican policy staffers also devolved into yelling and finger-pointing over the deal, according to two Republican aides.

“The tensions are high all around,” said one Senate GOP aide. “This bill isn’t going anywhere. Sadly it’s only dividing Republicans and putting Lankford on an island he doesn’t deserve.”

Another Republican aide said many in the conference believed an immigration deal was always doomed to fail, given the intensity the GOP base has for the issue and the necessity to compromise at least somewhat with Democrats to get to an agreement.

“You can’t kill something that was never alive,” the aide said.

Other Democratic lawmakers also said they were displeased with the bill.

“We are deeply concerned that the President would consider advancing Trump-era immigration policies that Democrats fought so hard against – and that he himself campaigned against – in exchange for aid to our allies that Republicans already support,” said Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif) and Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.), the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Immigrant rights groups also slammed the legislation.

“As [a] candidate, Joe Biden vowed to return to humane immigration policies, but as President, he has repeatedly pulled from former president Trump’s playbook of cruelty,” said Amy Fischer, the director of refugee and migrant rights for Amnesty International USA, in a statement.