Senate Republicans resist advancing on border policy bill, leaving aid for Ukraine in doubt

Feb 5, 2024, 2:29 PM | Updated: Feb 7, 2024, 2:04 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing a torrent of criticism from conservatives, Senate Republicans on Monday resisted advancing on 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.

In a dramatic turnaround, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell recommended to GOP senators in a closed-door meeting that they vote against the first procedural vote Wednesday, according to two people familiar with the meeting who were not authorized to talk publicly about it and spoke anonymously.

It came just hours after the Kentucky Republican had urged colleagues on the Senate floor that “it’s now time for Congress to take action.” But McConnell has struggled to marshal his conference to support the package of $118 billion package of border enforcement policy and funding for Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies.

Senate negotiators on Sunday night released the text of the bill, hoping that the details would win over skeptics. The carefully negotiated deal represented a rightward shift in Senate negotiations over border measures, yet the backlash was still 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.” “They want this for the presidential election so they can now blame the Republicans for the worst border in history.”

As they returned to the Capitol Monday, many Senate Republicans — even those who have expressed support for Ukraine aid and the contours of the border policy changes — raised doubts they would support advancing the package. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has planned to hold a key test vote Wednesday.

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

Schumer worked closely with McConnell on the border security package after the Republican leader 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,” Schumer said.

But Republicans expressed deep divisions on the bill. During a 90-minute, closed-door meeting Monday evening, their discussion turned to shouting.

“Time out!” said Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, during one exchange. “At ease!”

GOP senators emerged saying they were not likely to vote to move forward during the Wednesday test vote and wanted to debate changes to the bill — a demand that would further delay any definitive action on the legislation.

“I think the Wednesday vote is going to be, for most of our members, too early,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the second-ranked Republican leader.

Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, predicted that the Wednesday tally would fall short of the 60 votes needed. After exiting an earlier meeting with other GOP leaders, he told reporters, “I think the proposal is dead.”

Both McConnell and Schumer 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.

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.”

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?”

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 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.

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.

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 even expressed openness to re-opening negotiations.

“Right now it’s work in progress,” he told reporters. “So I’m not willing to do a funeral on it — the House side, they’ve already conducted the funeral.”

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 idea of tougher border measures.

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.


This story was first published on February 5, 2024. It was updated on February 7, 2024, to correct that Sen. Joni Ernst is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, not a retired lieutenant general.

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Senate Republicans resist advancing on border policy bill, leaving aid for Ukraine in doubt