NATIONAL NEWS

Senate Republicans block bipartisan border package, then scramble to find support for Ukraine aid

Feb 7, 2024, 9:13 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Wartime aid for Ukraine was left hanging in the Senate Wednesday after Republicans blocked a bipartisan border package that had been tied to the funding, then struggled to coalesce around a plan to salvage the aid for Kyiv.

After GOP senators scuttled months of negotiations with Democrats on legislation intended to cut back record numbers of illegal border crossings, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tried to push ahead to a crucial test vote on a $95 billion package for Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies — a modified package with the border portion stripped out.

But a deeply divided Republican conference was scrambling to find support for the wartime funding, even though it has been a top priority for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. It was the latest sign of the longtime Republican leader’s slipping control over his conference and underscored how the traditional GOP tenet of robust foreign involvement is giving way to Donald Trump’s “America First” nationalism. At stake is the future of Ukraine’s defense against Russia.

The Senate floor settled into an hours-long stall Wednesday night as Republicans huddled to see if they could gain the votes necessary to push it through the chamber. Schumer then closed the floor, saying he would “give our Republican colleagues the night to figure themselves out” ahead of a crucial test vote Thursday.

Republicans planned to meet in the morning to plot a path forward.

Some GOP senators have grown skeptical of sending money to Ukraine in its war with Russia, but Schumer warned earlier Wednesday that “history will cast a permanent and shameful shadow” on those who attempt to block it.

“Will the Senate stand up to brutish thugs like Vladimir Putin and reassure our friends abroad that America will never abandon them in the hour of need?” Schumer asked as he opened the Senate.

The roughly $60 billion in Ukraine aid has been stalled in Congress for months because of growing opposition from hardline conservatives in the House and Senate who criticize it as wasteful and demand an exit strategy for the war.

“We still need to secure America’s borders before sending another dime overseas,” Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah wrote in a post on X.

The impasse means that the U.S. has halted arms shipments to Kyiv at a crucial point in the nearly two-year-old conflict, leaving Ukrainian soldiers without ample ammunition and missiles as Russian President Putin has mounted relentless attacks.

Ukraine’s cause still enjoys support from many Senate Republicans, including McConnell, but the question vexing lawmakers has always been how to craft a package that could clear the Republican-controlled House.

A pairing of border policies and aid for allies — first proposed by Republicans — was intended to help squeeze the package through the House, where archconservatives hold control. But GOP senators — some within minutes of the bill’s release Sunday — rejected the compromise as election-year politics set in.

Many Republicans said the compromise wasn’t enough and they would rather allow the issue be decided in the presidential election. Supporters of the bill insisted it represented the most comprehensive bipartisan border proposal in years and included many Republican priorities.

The vote failed 49-50 — far short of the 60 ayes needed to take up the bill — with four Republicans voting to move forward with the legislation and six Democrats, some of whom said the border compromise went too far, voting against it.

The bipartisan group of senators who negotiated the compromise for the last four months said it was a missed opportunity to try to make some progress on one of the most intractable issues in American politics.

In a speech on the Senate floor just before the vote, Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, who crafted the proposal, said it was a chance for the Senate to decide “if we’re going to do nothing, or something.”

“It’s an issue that’s bedeviled, quite frankly, this body for decades,” Lankford said. “It’s been three decades since we’ve passed anything into law to be able to change border security.”

Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona blamed Republicans for not giving the bill a chance.

“Finally, it seemed, we had the opportunity to solve the nightmare my state has lived for over 40 years,” she said, scolding Republicans for using the border for “campaign photo ops” but rejecting the chance to enact law.

“Turns out they want all talk and no action,” she said. “It turns out border security is not a risk to our national security. It’s just a talking point for the election.”

The White House said President Joe Biden believes there should be new border policy but would also support moving the aid for Ukraine and Israel alone, as he has from the start.

“We support this bill which would protect America’s national security interests by stopping Putin’s onslaught in Ukraine before he turns to other countries, helping Israel defend itself against Hamas terrorists and delivering life-saving humanitarian aid to innocent Palestinian civilians,” said White House spokesman Andrew Bates.

The standalone $95 billion package would invest in domestic defense manufacturing, send funding to allies in Asia, and provide $10 billion for humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, Israel, Gaza and other places.

The revamped package includes legislation to authorize sanctions and anti-money laundering tools against criminal enterprises that traffic fentanyl into the U.S. A separate section of the compromise border legislation that would have provided a long-awaited pathway to residency for tens of thousands of Afghan refugees was dropped in the slimmed-down bill.

Still, it was not clear whether the new plan, even if it passed the Senate, would gain support from House Speaker Mike Johnson. House Republicans are still insisting on a border plan, even though they rejected the deal negotiated in the Senate as insufficient.

“We’ll see what the Senate does,” Johnson told reporters Wednesday morning. “We’re going to allow the process to play out.”

Some were skeptical that a standalone aid package would be viable in the House.

“I don’t see how that moves in this chamber. I don’t know how the speaker puts that on the floor,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said, adding that he still wanted tougher border policies attached.

After Donald Trump, the likely Republican presidential nominee, eviscerated the Senate’s bipartisan border proposal, Johnson quickly rejected it. Trump has also led many Republicans to question supporting Ukraine, suggesting he could negotiate an end to the war and lavishing praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin, including after Moscow’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Johnson said this week he wanted to handle wartime aid for Israel and Ukraine in separate packages, but a bill he advanced that only included funds for Israel failed on the House floor Tuesday night.

House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries was still hoping the House could take up the comprehensive package next week.

“That is the only path forward,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

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Senate Republicans block bipartisan border package, then scramble to find support for Ukraine aid