NATIONAL NEWS

Can Congress land a deal on Ukraine aid and border security as lawmakers return to Washington?

Jan 8, 2024, 11:30 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate negotiators were trying to land a bipartisan border security proposal this week that could unlock Senate Republican support for Ukraine aid. But as Congress returns, House conservatives are trying to interject their own hardline immigration demands.

Senate negotiators met Monday morning as they raced to finish work on legislative text. They were hoping this week to present the details of a bipartisan bill aimed at reducing the number of migrants who travel to the southern border to apply for asylum protections in the U.S. The small group of senators has been working for months on the legislation, but disagreements remained.

“We’re certainly narrowing down the issues,” Sen. Chris Murphy, who has been leading the Democratic side of the negotiation, told reporters. “We’re hopeful we’ll have something to present to our colleagues soon.”

President Joe Biden’s administration has also been directly involved in the talks as the president tries to both secure support for a top foreign policy priority — funding Ukraine’s defense against Russia — and demonstrate action on a potential political weakness — his handling of the historic number of migrants seeking asylum at the U.S. border with Mexico.

Biden has faced staunch resistance from conservatives to his $110 billion request for a package of wartime aid for Ukraine and Israel as well as other national security priorities. In the Senate, Republicans have demanded that the funding be paired with border security changes.

But in the House, conservatives have criticized any proposals that fall short of the strict border measures they passed on a party-line vote last year. And some House members aligned with Donald Trump, the former president and current Republican presidential front-runner, have suggested they would not support any bipartisan proposal — no matter the substance — if it means giving Biden a border bill to sign in an election year.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, joined by about 60 fellow House Republicans, visited a Texas border city last week to press the case that the border legislation should tack closely to what the House has already passed. Johnson said the visit only increased his resolve to ensure border policy changes are included with Ukraine funding and called the House bill a “necessary ingredient.”

Over the weekend, congressional leaders reached a separate agreement on overall spending figures for the current fiscal year as they try to pass legislation to avoid a partial government shutdown in less than two weeks. But leaders made no mention of border policies or Ukraine aid, and some conservatives in the House have pushed to use the prospect of a government shutdown as further leverage in the negotiations over border policy.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on board Air Force One on Monday that Republican should “stop threatening to shut down the government and fulfill their basic responsibility to fund critical domestic and national security priorities., including the president’s supplemental requests. It’s time for them to act.”

The White House has continually pressed Congress to approve supplemental aid for Ukraine, warning that the U.S. cannot send any more significant amounts of military equipment without approval. A lack of U.S. support would significantly diminish Ukraine’s defenses and weaken its government.

In the Senate, where negotiators have been plugging away at a bipartisan compromise, even the head GOP negotiator, Sen. James Lankford, has acknowledged that the final agreement will not include all of the conservative priorities.

“We’re always focused on what it would take to pass a bill through the House, the Senate and receive the president’s signature,” Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent central to the negotiations, said Monday.

As talks have progressed, the White House has tried to protect its ability to allow 30,000 people a month from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti entry into the U.S. if they have a financial sponsor and fly into the country.

Negotiators have also been grappling with how to implement a new series of border enforcement measures — many similar to those that were pursued by the Trump administration — that would be triggered if the number of daily crossings reach a certain threshold. It has proven difficult to reach agreement on what that threshold should be, according to people familiar with the talks who discussed the private negotiations on the condition of anonymity.

The emerging package also faces criticism from the left, with some progressive and Hispanic lawmakers raising concerns about policy changes that would restrict a migrant’s rights to seek asylum, which offers people protection from persecution in their home countries. Immigrant advocates critical of the proposal were planning to rally in Washington this week.

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Associated Press writer Seung Min Kim contributed.

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Can Congress land a deal on Ukraine aid and border security as lawmakers return to Washington?