Some of the Senate’s best-known dealmakers are worried last week’s border bill debacle could scare lawmakers away from trying to negotiate tough bipartisan compromises in the future.
“You spend four months of your life beating your heads against the wall trying to come to a deal, and then the same people that asked you to do the deal come back and say we’re not going to do the deal,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who helped shape 2021’s bipartisan infrastructure law, told Semafor. “I think it has an impact.”
Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz. began their talks last year after Republicans demanded tough border reforms as a condition for greenlighting more Ukraine aid. But the blessing from Senate leaders and the White House wasn’t enough to overcome a steady barrage of attacks from former President Donald Trump, who prodded conservatives in the House to reject the deal.
Even endorsements from the Wall Street Journal editorial board, the Chamber of Commerce, or the Border Patrol Union weren’t enough to draw GOP senators’ votes. Unlike the 2007 comprehensive immigration bill that notoriously failed in the Senate, the border proposal died without even receiving a procedural vote. And in an exasperating twist, it was done in by opposition from the party that had demanded talks in the first place.
“What happened — I’ve never seen anything like it,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., another centrist, told Semafor. “I didn’t think I’d ever see it but I did.” Asked to summarize the GOP’s handling of the deal in one word, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, responded: “Failure. Abject failure, if you give me two.”
Others were taken aback by the all-out political assault by right-wing commentators against Lankford, a reliable conservative known as an immigration hawk. During a Wednesday floor speech defending the bill, the Oklahoman mentioned he’d been threatened by a “popular commentator” who said they’d attempt to “destroy” him for doing anything to mitigate the border crisis during an election year.
“I’m worried about the general issue of people being attacked for the act of trying to solve problems. That’s a serious worry,” Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, told Semafor. “No human organization can solve problems without compromise. If compromise itself becomes an issue which can end your career, we’ll never be able to solve problems by definition.”
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. said he believed few, if any, Republican senators would want to become a negotiator on immigration and border issues anytime soon. “Let’s say if our conference were asked to have a volunteer, it’d be like that Dudley Do-Right cartoon,” Tillis said. ”Everybody would be stepping backwards, it would look like the person not paying attention stepped forward.”
The collapse of the border deal comes at a moment when pending retirements — notably Manchin and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah — are threatening to further hollow out the pragmatic, deal-making wing of the Senate. Sinema hasn’t decided whether to run again, but faces a difficult three-way race if she does. Tester could lose his Senate seat too.
Still, it’d be premature to declare bipartisanship dead in the upper chamber. With the loss of experienced negotiators, there might still be a critical mass of deal-makers left in the Senate capable of crafting bipartisan compromises. Aides who spoke with Semafor are keeping a close eye on Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Murkowski; Bill Cassidy, R-La.; Todd Young, R-Ind.; Mike Rounds, R-S.D; and Shelly Moore Capito, R-W.Va. to determine whether they’ll step in to hold the center together.
Other working groups are also springing up, albeit on problems that aren’t as polarizing as immigration. On Friday, there was an announcement of a new bipartisan group consisting of six senators to tackle Medicare payment reform.
The View From Chris Murphy
Trying to address the border at a moment while Trump campaigned on it may have been a uniquely impossible task. Murphy, the lead Democrat on the border talks, drew a comparison with his 2022 gun safety package that ultimately reached President Biden’s desk and became law, despite Trump’s opposition.
“The issue of guns is not existential to Trump’s campaign. The issue of demonizing immigrants is existential to Trump’s campaign,” Murphy said. “So Trump was technically against the gun bill, but he and MAGA were not going to burn it down in the way that they burned down the immigration-border compromise.”