If Democrats want a big foreign aid package for Israel and Ukraine, they’ll need to swallow some major concessions on border security.
That’s the message Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans sent on Tuesday, as Washington headed for a showdown over overseas military spending. “I think Democrats will have to accept a really serious US-Mexico border protection bill in order to get our people on board for a comprehensive approach” to Israel and Ukraine, McConnell told reporters at his weekly press conference.
Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. echoed the GOP leader. Without a border security deal, “nothing else falls into place,” he told Semafor.
McConnell’s comments were especially significant given that he has been the White House’s most critical Republican ally in its push for a $106 billion package that would wrap together aid to Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan, while providing more cash for the Department of Homeland Security. That measure has collided into stiff conservative opposition in the House, where Republicans have proposed a standalone Israel aid bill.
While dealing with the border remains one of the most politically sensitive issues in Washington, some Democratic senators said on Tuesday that they were open to bargaining.
“I think there’s deal space there and I think we should pursue it,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, told Semafor. “But I think it’s also essential if this negotiation is going to happen in good faith, they temper their expectations in such a way that their asks are realistic.”
Hoping for bipartisan agreement on anything related to immigration or the border is almost always a recipe for disappointment on Capitol Hill. But, this time could maybe (just maybe) be different — and not just because Democrats badly want to push through Ukraine aid.
First, the political landscape on immigration has changed, particularly in major cities struggling to accommodate an influx of migrants. Democratic mayors in New York and Chicago have pressed for more federal dollars to provide shelter, meals, and social services to migrants. In addition, a recent NBC News survey showed Republicans beating out Democrats as the party more trusted to handle immigration and border security.
Second, there are some areas where some key Democrats and Republicans already agree, like spending more on border agents. “Border Patrol cannot do this job unless we come up with some more resources,” Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., who visited the southern border last month, told Semafor. “This has been a really challenging time for them.” The White House’s emergency national security package already includes roughly $14 billion for the border.
Biden has also acquiesced at times on some controversial GOP immigration policies, such as when the White House gave the green-light for more construction of Trump’s border wall in Texas. (The president said he legally had no choice.)
The biggest obstacle is that Republicans aren’t just asking for money. Instead, some are advocating more sweeping changes to the U.S. asylum system, such as reinstating Trump-era rules compelling some migrants to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed. “I would like to actually see substantial policy changes that would lead to significant border security like reinstitution of remain in Mexico, something that would actually fix the asylum process,” Sen. J.D Vance of Ohio told reporters.
Those sorts of demands would make it harder to move any border security deal through the Senate, since any policy change beyond new spending would require legislation to clear the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold.
Still, Democrats don’t appear to be ruling out more far-reaching proposals, at least yet.
“I think our asylum system is being overwhelmed,” Sen. Dick Durbin, the chamber’s second-ranked Democrat, told Semafor. “And if we can find ways to continue the fairness and be more efficient, I support that.”
Room for Disagreement
Recent history is littered with examples of immigration deals that ultimately collapsed. Even Democrats’ desire to push through aid to Kyiv might not be enough to get a major border deal over the hump.
The View From House Democrats
Politico reported that the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is fragmenting over Biden’s request for border security funding and a separate bipartisan immigration reform bill. The CHC had initially sought to keep border funding separate from foreign aid, and some House Democrats say there’s not enough cash for food and shelter for migrants in Biden’s proposal.