There’s a new bipartisan group of Senators working on a border security package. Just don’t call it a “gang,” says its ringleader.
“It’s not a gang. It’s definitely not,” Sen. James Lankford R-Okla., told reporters, brushing off the term Capitol Hill reporters often reach for when lawmakers team up across the aisle to hash out a high-stakes compromise.
However lawmakers want to describe the talks, the pressure is definitely on. The Biden administration is seeking a $106 billion national security package that would include aid for both Ukraine and Israel. But Senate Republican leaders have said their party will tank it unless the deal also includes measures to deal with the migrant crisis at the Southern border, beyond the $14 billion in extra spending the White House has requested.
Lankford isn’t naming his collaborators for now, and talks are nascent enough that Republican senators aren’t swapping bill text with Democrats just yet. But the Oklahoman said “a high priority” for the group would be changes to asylum policy, including the end of the practice sometimes known as “catch and release,” where migrants awaiting an immigration court date are allowed into the U.S. instead of being detained.
“We’re trying to figure out what authorities the administration is missing,” Lankford told reporters, adding that the group’s chief goal is finding steps to “slow down the flow.”
In the past, Democrats have typically seen stricter border enforcement as a bargaining chip they could trade to win broader immigration reforms. But that may be starting to change, making a deal on the issue more feasible. Several Senate Democrats are facing tough races in red states where scenes of chaos at the border are seen as a major liability. Meanwhile, waves of migrants have begun to overwhelm social services in northeastern cities like New York, where Mayor Eric Adams has savaged the Biden administration’s handling of the issue.
“There’s no way you can look Americans in the eye unless we’re taking care of our own borders as we help others protect their own borders,” Sen. Joe Manchin, who faces a tough reelection battle in West Virginia, told Semafor. “So this is very serious. I think we’ll work it out.”
Democrats have generally been cautious about breaking with the White House on border issues in public. But behind closed doors, they share many of the same concerns as the GOP, Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. told Semafor.
“We’ve been very frank with [Democrats], we’ve told them and I think you’ll find that a number of Democrats feel the same way, it’s just a matter of how they couch it with the administration,” he said. Rounds added that he’d seen several Democratic senators register their criticism with White House officials firsthand. (The White House declined to comment.)
One top Republican suggested that their party’s demands might give the White House itself an opportunity to push aside objections from its left. “I think maybe this is a magic moment,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas told Semafor. “If I were President Biden, I’d say the mean old Republicans made me do this and he’d take one of his biggest political liabilities off the table.”
Still, the space for a deal on anything related to immigration and border security is fraught with obstacles and a tendency for lawmakers to make big demands that scare off the other side. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev. told Politico that more sweeping legislation addressing farm workers and “Dreamers” should be on the table as well.
Senate Republicans seem ready to borrow ideas from their House counterparts. Lankford told Semafor the House GOP’s signature border bill should be in the mix. “There are parts of H.R. 2 — you talk to DHS folks and they say that makes sense,” he said. “It’d be logical if some of those same elements was in it.”
H.R. 2 would reinstate a range of Trump-era immigration policies, such as continuing the construction of a border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border; enacting stiff restrictions on asylum and making it easier to deport migrants; and reviving rules compelling some migrants to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed.
Even moderate Democrats who want to address the border seem to be interested in a narrower approach. “I think there’s certain things we could do, invest in technology and manpower that makes perfect sense,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. told Semafor. “We’ll see what kind of policy folks offer up. And I certainly wouldn’t write it off but it’s gotta be reasonable policy.”
Despite its association with Donald Trump, the piece of H.R. 2 that might be easiest for Democrats to swallow might be the border wall. The White House has already provided the go-ahead for continued construction of former president Trump’s controversial wall in Texas, and some Democrats say they’re comfortable with additional barriers.
“In some places where they make sense, we need barriers,” Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., told Semafor. “We should really listen to Border Patrol. They know what they need and when I talk to them, they’re strong supporters of barriers.”
Room for Disagreement
Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., seemed skeptical that any deal can be struck on border security. “I don’t know whether the two parties on this issue will be willing to find a compromise,” he told Semafor. “Certainly there’s a compromise everywhere for almost every issue, but this issue has been noteworthy with people’s unwillingness to find common ground.”