Democrats are increasingly acknowledging that pairing a bipartisan border deal with new Ukraine aid is unraveling for one major reason: Most in the party never wanted this negotiation in the first place.
While key House factions like the Progressive and Hispanic Caucuses signaled more than a month ago they would oppose any immigration policy changes in a foreign aid bill, Democratic leaders and the rank-and-file in the Senate gave the bipartisan negotiators space to work out a deal. On Wednesday, it will become crystal clear that hasn’t worked out, as the GOP is expected to filibuster President Joe Biden’s foreign aid request because it lacks sufficient border security policies.
And as they assess the wreckage of the flailing negotiations to link the border with Ukraine, many Democrats now believe the talks were not set up to succeed from the beginning. While a growing number of Democrats acknowledge that surging migration at the border demands action, most of the party views the border negotiations demanded by Republicans with disinterest or even scorn.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer derided the Republican border position as “hostage-taking,” Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the mix of negotiators meant it was “never going to happen” and some House Democrats are calling on Senate leaders to pull the plug entirely.
“They never should have started,” said Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.).
From the beginning, the negotiations were asymmetric. Republicans say border policy changes are the price for Democrats’ getting Ukraine funding. But Democrats believe it’s misleading to argue that Democrats are getting Ukraine funding in exchange for border policies, those lawmakers argue, since Republicans also support aid for Kyiv.
On Wednesday, the frustrations in the Capitol over the impasse will spill out openly on the Senate floor, as the GOP is expected to block advancing President Joe Biden’s $106 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. Schumer had hoped the vote, though he knew it was likely doomed, might unstick the flailing negotiations among six senators on border policy.
And there’s still a chance senators may pick the stalled border policy negotiations back up. Senate Democrats aren’t closing the door but continue to argue the GOP needs to move toward a compromise rather than sticking with pursuing tough asylum, parole and detention policies while. The fact Democrats are airing their problems publicly isn’t a great sign for those talks, however.
Plus, their counterparts across the Capitol aren’t sure even a successful deal can clear Speaker Mike Johnson’s House. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), observed that the House “is so broken that even the must-passes don’t pass.”
“Putting something as complex and needed as immigration reform in a pressure-cooker bill was not smart,” said Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.).
What’s more, Democrats are sick of answering for Republicans’ line in the sand. This week, GOP senators essentially indicated there’s little room to negotiate other than for Democrats to swallow most of their proposed border policies, which fall short of the House GOP’s hardline bill but still go much further than most Democrats are comfortable.
That’s led to a wave of anger over where things stand.
“You can tell that I’m irritated with this, the proposition that Republicans are taking, literally, Europe hostage in exchange for border concessions,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told reporters. “And you guys come to us and say: ‘What are you going to do about the hostage taking?’”
In the House, top progressives are signaling they’re not heartbroken that things are falling apart across the Capitol. They’re comfortable with Biden’s foreign aid request going to a vote, even if it’s a failed one.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Progressive Caucus, said she advised Democratic senators to force the GOP to “make the choice of whether you’re going to give aid to Ukraine at this critical time. But don’t give in to the hostage-taking, the throwing under the bus of immigrants.”
Schumer said Tuesday he would allow Republicans to have an amendment vote on their border proposals if they advanced the bill, but he was quickly rebuffed by GOP leaders, who said they will still mount a filibuster. That proposed amendment vote would come at a 60-vote threshold, which means it would require support from at least 11 Democratic senators — and allow some incumbent Democrats to break from their party with little consequence.
“If they want money for Ukraine and Israel, they’re not going to get it unless they close the border. For them, keeping an open border is more important than the security of Europe or the Middle East. Which is astonishing to me,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said of Democrats.
While privately many Democrats are skeptical the border negotiations will succeed, they feel compelled to try. After all, one of Biden’s top priorities rests on this deal with Republicans. If they actually got an agreement though, Johnson would need Democratic votes to pass it given the sheer number of Ukraine skeptics in the House GOP.
And some progressives argue the Senate is not pursuing a workable solution, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) arguing it sets “a very dangerous precedent to exchange domestic policy for foreign policy.”
Border negotiators like Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) would not necessarily have chosen to pair the two to begin with, due to past failures on immigration and border policy talks. But Senate Democrats say they are playing the hand they’ve been dealt by Republicans, who also have to contend with helping Johnson keep his job.
As Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) observed of the talks: “I never thought they made sense. But I thought they were necessary.”
“You’ve got Republican leaders saying this isn’t a negotiation, this is about putting a gun to the head of Ukraine and getting whatever we want. That’s not the way legislation customarily works,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) in an interview.
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