Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford speaks with reporters in the Russell office building in the Capitol complex in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. (Photo by Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)
WASHINGTON — U.S. Senate Republicans on Tuesday walked away from the bipartisan border security and immigration deal clinched after months of painstaking negotiations, siding with their House colleagues and presidential front-runner Donald Trump.
The decision to block the bill released just two days ago not only leaves laws in place that GOP lawmakers say have led to a “crisis” at the southern border, but drags on the stalemate over whether Congress will approve assistance for Ukraine and Israel, which was rolled into the package.
Republicans said months ago that the only way they’d support additional assistance for the two U.S. allies at war was if Democrats worked with them to “secure” the border.
But that requirement fell by the wayside this week after U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, and dozens of GOP lawmakers expressed opposition to the bill that was negotiated by a bipartisan trio of senators. Johnson instead pushed a standalone bill that only provided aid to Israel — and it was rejected on a Tuesday night vote. An attempt to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas also failed.
Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford, one of the three senators who spent months negotiating the immigration language in the measure released Sunday, said he believes there will be “significant” ramifications if the GOP completely walks away from the deal he helped write.
Lankford also expressed dismay that some of the lawmakers opposing the package don’t actually understand how the proposed changes in immigration law would work.
“That’s the part that’s disappointing to me,” Lankford said. “If you’re going to disagree with it, disagree with it based on the facts of the bill, not something that’s actually factually not true.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday it’s obvious the full package cannot pass Congress and pressed for assistance to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan to move forward independently.
“There are other parts of this supplemental that are extremely important as well — Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan,” McConnell said. “We still, in my view, ought to tackle the rest of it because it’s important. Not that the border isn’t important, but we can’t get an outcome.”
The Kentucky Republican declined to comment if Trump was responsible for blocking the package after months of complex talks, saying that the situation has evolved.
“I followed the instructions of my conference, who were insisting that we tackle this in October,” McConnell said. “It’s actually our side that wanted to tackle the border issue. We started it.”
“But as I said earlier, things have changed over the last four months and it’s been made perfectly clear by the speaker that he wouldn’t take it up even if we sent it to him,” McConnell said. “And so I think that’s probably why most of our members think we ought to have opposition tomorrow … and then move on with the rest of the supplemental.”
The procedural vote on the package, which requires at least 60 senators to advance toward final passage, is scheduled for Wednesday.
Biden blames Trump
President Joe Biden on Tuesday expressed frustration that Republicans won’t support the immigration deal because of current GOP front-runner Trump, who is stoking fears of immigration as a central campaign message.
“Because Donald Trump thinks it’s bad for him politically,” Biden said. “Look, I understand the former president is desperately trying to stop this bill because he’s not interested in solving the border problem, he wants a political issue to run against me on.”
Biden warned that if the bill is not sent to his desk to be signed into law, “the American people are going to know why it failed.”
“Every day between now and November, the American people are going to know that the only reason the border is not secure is Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican friends,” Biden said.
Biden said that getting aid to Ukraine was critical, but declined to say he would support placing the immigration proposals into separate legislation to free up passage of the supplemental.
“We need it all,” Biden said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said he’s willing to give GOP senators additional time to read through the bill and prepare amendments to the package.
But Schumer rebuked their decision to block the legislation from moving forward, saying Republicans are unwilling to resist Trump’s “bullying, even though they know he’s wrong.”
Schumer didn’t forecast whether he would advance a standalone aid bill for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan after Wednesday’s vote on the full package.
“We are going to vote on the bill tomorrow. The bill that’s before us. We’re going to move further forward. Stay tuned,” Schumer said.
Major changes in immigration law
The Senate deal brokered a significant overhaul of immigration law, such as raising the bar for migrants to claim asylum, creating a temporary procedure to shut down the border during active times and clarifying the president’s authority for humanitarian parole programs, among other changes.
Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Republicans’ newfound opposition to the border security and immigration policy changes they wanted in the first place will “absolutely” impact voters’ thinking heading toward the November elections.
“This is a significant piece of legislation to deal with border security and Republicans are rejecting it,” Peters said. “And that will come back to haunt them.”
Turning their backs on the bipartisan compromise, Peters said, will have “big implications in all states, not just border states.”
Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, whom Democrats tapped to negotiate the immigration deal, said that it was “outrageous” that Republicans were dumping the supplemental package and immigration reforms “because Donald Trump asked them (to).”
“Republicans decided that they would be better off preserving chaos at the border, as an election issue, instead of solving the problem,” Murphy said.
“We reached a compromise that would actually fix the problem, and it turns out Republicans don’t want to fix the problem, they want to leave the issue of immigration open as a political agenda item to exploit.”
South Dakota Republican Sen. Mike Rounds said it was “disappointing” to him and many other GOP senators that Trump criticized the proposal in the way he did.
“There is no such thing as a perfect bill,” said Rounds, who said on X on Tuesday night he planned to oppose it.
“With the ability to actually offer amendments, a lot of us had hoped that we would get this to the point where it would be a better bill than what it would be today,” Rounds said. “And then we could move forward and hopefully the House might even consider it with some additional amendments on it. And that’s what our goal was.”
House votes on bill for standalone Israel aid
While McConnell now wants to see Congress move additional military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan in the absence of a larger package, House Republican leaders had already put their own proposal on the floor.
Their bill, which was rejected on a 250-180 vote on Tuesday night, proposed $17.6 billion in aid for Israel as well as other American interests in the Middle East. It didn’t include emergency aid for any other countries.
Fourteen Republicans voted against the bill, while 46 Democrats voted for its passage.
House GOP leaders put the bill up for a vote under what’s known as suspension of the rules, a maneuver that requires a two-thirds vote for passage. That is why it didn’t pass, even though it had a majority of the votes.
The so-called suspension calendar is typically used for broadly bipartisan, noncontroversial bills, like renaming a post office. But House Republicans have increasingly used it to pass more consequential bills.
Legislation brought up under suspension of the rules is not subject to amendment.
House debate on the bill fell largely along partisan lines with Republicans arguing the Israel-only aid bill was the best way to help that country in its ongoing war against Hamas following the Oct. 7 attacks and Democrats saying Congress must strive to help other allies as well.
The Biden administration on Monday issued a veto threat against that bill, saying in a Statement of Administration Policy it “is another cynical political maneuver.”
“The security of Israel should be sacred, not a political game,” the Biden administration wrote.
“The Administration strongly opposes this ploy which does nothing to secure the border, does nothing to help the people of Ukraine defend themselves against Putin’s aggression, fails to support the security of American synagogues, mosques, and vulnerable places of worship, and denies humanitarian assistance to Palestinian civilians, the majority of whom are women and children.”
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter that Democrats would not support the standalone legislation.
“Unfortunately, the standalone legislation introduced by House Republicans over the weekend, at the eleventh hour without notice or consultation, is not being offered in good faith,” he wrote.
“Rather, it is a nakedly obvious and cynical attempt by MAGA extremists to undermine the possibility of a comprehensive, bipartisan funding package that addresses America’s national security challenges in the Middle East, Ukraine, the Indo-Pacific region and throughout the world.”
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