NATIONAL NEWS

Senators release a border and Ukraine deal but the House speaker declares it ‘dead on arrival’

Feb 4, 2024, 8:57 AM | Updated: 8:26 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senators on Sunday released a highly anticipated $118 billion package that pairs border enforcement policy with wartime aid for Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies, but it quickly ran into a wall of opposition from top House Republicans, including Speaker Mike Johnson.

The proposal could be the best chance for President Joe Biden to resupply Ukraine with wartime aid — a major foreign policy goal that is shared with both the Senate’s top Democrat, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and top Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell. The Senate was expected this week to hold a key test vote on the legislation, but within hours of the text being released Johnson said on social media that it would be “dead on arrival” if it reaches the House.

With Congress stalled on approving $60 billion in Ukraine aid, the U.S. has halted shipments of ammunition and missiles to Kyiv, leaving Ukrainian soldiers outgunned as they try to beat back Russia’s invasion.

Senators have been working for months on the carefully negotiated compromise intended to overcome opposition from conservatives who have tired of funding Ukraine’s fight. But the coming days will be a crucial test of whether congressional leaders can once again muscle their members to support a package designed to assert American strength — and commitment — around the world.

They will also be weighing whether to continue pressing on one of the most fraught issues in American politics — border and immigration legislation.

Biden said in a statement that the Senate proposal “allows the United States to continue our vital work, together with partners all around the world, to stand up for Ukraine’s freedom and support its ability to defend itself against Russia’s aggression.”

And on the border, Biden said that the immigration system has been broken for too long, and it’s time to fix it. “It will make our country safer, make our border more secure, treat people fairly and humanely while preserving legal immigration, consistent with our values as a nation,” the Democratic president said.

The proposal would overhaul the asylum system with faster and tougher enforcement, as well as give presidents new powers to immediately expel migrants if authorities become overwhelmed with the number of people applying for asylum. The new bill would also invest in U.S. defense manufacturing, send $14 billion in military aid to Israel, steer nearly $5 billion to allies in the Asia-Pacific, and provide humanitarian assistance to civilians caught in conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza.

In a call with reporters after releasing the legislation, Schumer said he has never worked so closely with McConnell. He called the bill a “monumental step” toward strengthening national security at home and abroad.

Without the Ukraine aid, Schumer said, he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin “could be rolling over Ukraine and even into Eastern Europe.”

McConnell said in a statement that the Senate must be “prepared to act.”

“America’s sovereignty is being tested here at home, and our credibility is being tested by emboldened adversaries around the world,” McConnell said. “The challenges we face will not resolve themselves, nor will our adversaries wait for America to muster the resolve to meet them.”

In a bid to overcome opposition from House Republicans, McConnell had insisted last year that border policy changes be included in the national security funding package. However, in an election-year shift on immigration, Biden and many Democrats have embraced the idea of strict border enforcement, while Donald Trump and his allies have criticized the proposed measures as insufficient.

Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, said on social media, “I’ve seen enough. This bill is even worse than we expected, and won’t come close to ending the border catastrophe the President has created.”

Republicans have been reluctant to give Biden a political win on an issue they see as one of his biggest vulnerabilities and argue that presidents already have enough authority to curb illegal border crossings — a stance that would ensure immigration remains a major issue in the presidential election. Yet at the same time, House Republicans have also pushed for their own, stricter version of border security legislation.

That bill, which passed the House last year without a single Democratic vote, currently has no chance of gaining the Democratic support it would need in the Senate. GOP senators also attempted to add it on to other legislation last year, but that effort only gained 46 votes.

Johnson indicated Saturday that the House will vote on a separate package of $17.6 billion of military aid for Israel — a move that allows House Republicans to show support for Israel apart from the Senate deal.

It is also unclear if the bill will pass in the Senate. Senate Republicans have been divided on the bill, with several in McConnell’s ranks arguing that it isn’t strong enough. Some quickly said they would vote against it.

“The ‘border deal’ is an easy NO. It reads like a parody of an actual border security bill,” Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, posted on social media.

The bipartisan proposal is aimed at gaining control of an asylum system that has been overwhelmed by historic numbers of migrants coming to the border.

Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, who negotiated the bill for Republicans, told reporters that GOP critics were missing parts of the bill that would give Republicans wins on issues they have talked about for years.

He said it provides border-wall money, expands deportation flights, increases the number of border officers and creates a faster process for deportation. Republican critics, he said, should look at “how it clears up a lot of the long-term issues and loopholes that have existed in the asylum law and it gives us an emergency authority that stops the chaos right now on the border.”

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. They would also be given work permits if they pass the initial screenings.

“America is and continues to be a bastion of hope for true asylum seekers,” Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent who negotiated the border proposal, told reporters on a phone call. “But it is not an open door for economic migrants. It has been, as we know, exploited dramatically by cartels in the last four to five years.”

If the number of illegal border crossings reaches above 5,000 daily for a five-day average, an expulsion authority would automatically kick in so that migrants who cross illegally are expelled without an opportunity to make an asylum claim. If the number reaches 4,000, presidential administrations would have the option of using the new authority. Under the proposal, migrants could still apply at ports of entry.

Biden, referencing the authority, has said he would use it to “shut down the border” as soon as the bill is signed into law.

The bill would allot $20 billion to immigration enforcement, including the hiring of thousands of new officers to evaluate asylum claims and hundreds of Border Patrol agents, as well as funding local governments that have seen influxes of migrants.

Among Democrats, the tougher asylum standards have raised concern, especially from progressive and Hispanic lawmakers. Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat of California, said in a statement that the proposal would cause “more chaos at the border, not less.”

Immigration advocates were highly critical of new limits on asylum, with some urging that the bill be rejected in its current form.

The $14 billion in the package intended for military support for Israel could also splinter Democratic votes. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent of Vermont, is pushing to strip $10 billion for offensive weaponry for Israel from the package while maintaining money for defensive systems.

Schumer said he would schedule a key test vote on the legislation Wednesday.

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Senators release a border and Ukraine deal but the House speaker declares it ‘dead on arrival’