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Senate GOP split threatens bipartisan border deal as Trump looms large

Senate Republicans demanded border be added to negotiations on a national security package but now splits within their party threaten the chances of a bipartisan border deal.
J. Scott Applewhite
Senate Republicans demanded border be added to negotiations on a national security package but now splits within their party threaten the chances of a bipartisan border deal.

Senate Republicans demanded that President Biden's national security funding package for Ukraine be tied to policy changes to address the crisis at the southwest border. But now that negotiators say they are ready to release details of a bipartisan plan to reduce the surge of migrants at the border, Republican divisions could scuttle the plan.

Months of negotiations among Republicans, Democrats and Biden administration officials are now threatened by politics. Former President Donald Trump, the Republican Party's likely 2024 presidential nominee, has been publicly slamming the deal and urging lawmakers to oppose it.

Negotiators started the week promising to release a bill in the coming days. But by Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appeared to signal he's ready to move on and focus on getting money to two key allies of the U.S. at war.

"It's time for us to move something, hopefully including the border agreement, but we need to get help to Israel and Ukraine quickly," McConnell told reporters.

McConnell has consistently argued that divided government is the moment to extract demands on border policy from Democrats.

Pressed about what voters would think of Republican lawmakers who sink a bill because Trump directed them to, McConnell sidestepped the question. He said, "I still favor trying to make law when you can," and said what the bipartisan group is working on is better than current immigration law, adding, "You're asking me a question I can't answer right now, which is the fate of it."

Senators already know key details

The top Democratic negotiator working on a border plan, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, has signaled for days that the deal is basically done but that getting signoff from the GOP to move ahead is the holdup.

"We have a bipartisan agreement to help address the crisis at the border. Republicans have been desperate for that. Why would they walk away from it?"

Senate Republicans huddled at their weekly lunch on Wednesday to discuss next steps, but the consensus coming out of the meeting was that lawmakers want to see the details.

After weeks of negotiations, however, the key provisions have already been explained to lawmakers from both parties.

The bill includes several tools to address the border, including giving the president the ability to shut down the border if the numbers of migrants attempting to enter the U.S. climbs above a certain threshold, adjusting the rules for who qualifies for asylum and allowing migrants authorization to work while awaiting adjudication of their asylum claim.

Extended negotiations opened space for critics

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said the effort is "an uphill climb" because as the talks have continued, some members have impressions about what the proposal will do and "there are certain people who will never change their mind."

Tillis has said a border plan needs to get the majority of Senate Republicans in order to move ahead. But Trump injecting himself into the process has caused many lawmakers to refrain from backing the framework, making it tougher to meet that test.

Sen. Jim Lankford, R-Okla., is crafting the plan along with Murphy and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Ariz.-I. Lankford spent time on Sunday talk shows swatting down leaks about the plan, which conservative media outlets are painting as a green light for 5,000 additional migrants a day.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who was an early advocate of linking money for Ukraine to changes to the Biden administration's policies, said people need time to see an official piece of legislation.

"People are talking about what they think is in it and what they've heard is in it, what's not in it," Cornyn told reporters. "I think the first thing we need to do is see where the conference is, based on the text rather than just based on rumors and hearsay."

Tillis called Wednesday's meeting "a good discussion." But he added, "I would ask those same members, who are calling for time, to read it but not judge something they haven't read."

Others who have come out against the bill already are dismissing the proposals.

"I think this is a bad bill," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told reporters. "And the simplest reason is, it doesn't solve the problem."

Cruz blamed Senate Democrats for crafting a bill that "allows Joe Biden to continue the open borders," despite the months of bipartisan negotiations that have taken place. Biden endorsed the proposal and said last week that if Congress passed it, he would immediately shut down the border.

Some optimism remains

Murphy remained optimistic on Wednesday that the deal would survive and come to the floor for a vote, possibly as soon as this week.

He said a "sizable, important group of Republican senators" is making a good-faith effort to get something done on the border, and he suggested that others are making disingenuous arguments about needing to see the full text.

"This is not a detailed study of the issue. This is a question as to whether they are going to put Trump before solving the problem," Murphy said.

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Lexie Schapitl is a production assistant with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces and digital content. She also reports from the field and assists with production of the NPR Politics Podcast.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.