With Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy due in Washington on Tuesday, the White House has plunged directly into the Senate’s wobbling bipartisan negotiations over a deal to potentially trade stiff new border enforcement reforms for aid to Kyiv.
White House chief of staff Jeff Zients is now part of the discussions with Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.; James Lankford, R-Okla.; and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., according to a Senate aide. It’s the most direct involvement from the West Wing since the group began bargaining about a month ago. Another person familiar with the talks said Zients has been in conversations with the negotiating trio, along with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Several top lawmakers had previously suggested that the White House would need to get involved to break the ongoing logjam in negotiations. Republicans have said they will not approve another round of aid to Ukraine without significant new limits on the U.S. asylum program, and other major changes to border policy. On Monday, Lankford told reporters that he didn’t think there was enough time to cinch an agreement before the Senate adjourns for Christmas.
“I hope he’s wrong,” Murphy told reporters. “I hope tomorrow’s [Zelensky] visit will convince Republicans to put a bow on this agreement.”
On Monday, both Democrats and Republicans acknowledged that discussions have been making halting progress, at best. But they offered conflicting accounts of how negotiations unfolded over the weekend, which left it unclear how much Republicans and Democrats were actively talking.
Lankford said the White House and Senate Democrats had cut him out of talks for the last several days while trying to reach an agreement among themselves about what sort of deal on border policy they could accept. “I didn’t get looped in. It was just a frustrating weekend,” he told reporters.
But Democrats insisted that Lankford hadn’t been left out. “They negotiated through the weekend,” a Democratic aide briefed on the discussions told Semafor.
While the two parties are still struggling to reach a pact , Latino lawmakers have begun to raise their own alarms after President Biden suggested he was willing to make significant concessions on the border to secure Ukraine aid.
“We are deeply concerned that the President would consider advancing Trump-era immigration policies that Democrats fought so hard against — and that he himself campaigned against — in exchange for aid to our allies that Republicans already support,” Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif. and Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Nanette Diaz Barragán said in a joint statement.
Along with stricter asylum provisions, Republicans have demanded an overhaul of the parole system the White House has used to manage the enormous flow of migrants arriving to the US-Mexico border. Conservatives have accused the White House of abusing the parole system to allow hundreds of thousands of individuals into the country.
NBC News reported on Sunday about growing frustration within CHC ranks at their inability to get an “urgent” meeting with the White House to voice their concerns. A White House aide told Semafor they’re in frequent contact with members of the CHC.
In their letter, Barragán and Padilla laid down several red lines as “nonstarters.” Notably, the lawmakers are signaling they may not back a bill that expanded the Department of Homeland Security’s expedited removal authority beyond the US-Mexico border, a move that would make it easier to deport undocumented immigrants who have long lived in the US. Under former President Trump, DHS used expedited removal authority to swiftly deport immigrants who resided in the US for less than two years.
“Terrorizing communities across the U.S. by expanding expedited removal and ignoring our international obligations to provide asylum to those fleeing persecution, violence, and authoritarianism are nonstarters,” the letter states. “Republican demands to cut off legal pathways and deport long-term residents will not reduce unauthorized migration.”