A bipartisan deal in the U.S. Senate that would pair immigration policy changes with long-stalled Ukraine aid appeared on the verge of falling apart Thursday — all because of apparent pressure from Donald Trump.
The Associated Press, Reuters and other U.S. news outlets are reporting Republican senators have become increasingly opposed to the deal as Trump, the likely presidential nominee, urges lawmakers not to accept anything that compromises hardline conservative policies at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The reports say Trump wants to keep immigration as an issue to campaign on against U.S. President Joe Biden, and is promising to address it if he returns to the White House with a Republican majority in Congress.
At stake is additional military and other aid for Ukraine that the White House, Democrats and even some Republicans have been pushing for since the fall, but has become leverage in the border talks. The Biden administration ran out of approved funds for Ukraine in December and has warned failing to approve more could imperil Kyiv’s survival against Russia’s invasion.
But the reported pressure campaign by Trump also imperils what could be the most significant overhaul of U.S. immigration policy in decades, with bipartisan support. Lawmakers from both parties, as well as political experts, are voicing dismay that a potential solution to the very real problem of record surges of migrants at the southern border could be imperiled by Trump’s campaign priorities.
“For the most part, (Republicans would) rather have the issue to complain and campaign about than to pass something,” said Matthew Lebo, a political science professor at Western University who studies American politics.
“Many Republican legislators live in fear of being on the wrong side of Trump and having him target them on the campaign trail. And they worry about the possible negative consequences of cutting deals with Democrats. … So it’s a very tough balancing act.”
U.S. Senate Republicans block Ukraine aid bill
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney told CNN the idea Trump would sabotage the deal in order to blame Biden for issues at the border was “appalling.”
“The reality is that we have a crisis at the border, the American people are suffering as a result of what’s happening at the border,” he said. “Someone running for president ought to try and get the problem solved, as opposed to saying, ‘Hey, save that problem, don’t solve it, let me take credit for solving it later.’”
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In a closed-door Republican meeting on Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged the reality of Trump’s opposition, that he is the party’s likely presidential nominee and discussed other options, including potentially separating funding for Ukraine and the border, according to two people familiar who spoke anonymously to the Associated Press to discuss the private meeting.
Punchbowl News first reported the remarks, which represented a shift from months of insisting that Republicans had the best chance in years to enact border policy changes in exchange for Ukraine aid.
McConnell’s comments raised fresh doubts in the Senate about his level of commitment to the border deal, though advocates for moving forward countered that the leader’s remarks were being misinterpreted.
“We’re still working on it,” McConnell told reporters at a press conference Thursday morning.
Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, the head GOP negotiator, said the group is still working on the package. He said that McConnell was advocating for the proposal while simply acknowledging the political reality that the presidential primary season is fully underway.
“I think that’s the shift that has occurred, that he’s just acknowledging,” Lankford said. “That’s just a reality.”
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Trump’s allies in the Senate have claimed negotiators working on the deal are withholding its details because the legislation won’t go far enough to secure the border and will anger Republicans. In reality, the release of the text has been held up by haggling over the price of the new policies and continued disagreements over limiting the president’s ability to allow people into the country under special circumstances, such as fleeing war and unrest, people close to the negotiations have told the Associated Press.
“We’re really focused on making sure we get the bill out and that we get it through the Senate,” said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent who has been central to the talks.
That hasn’t stopped conservative opponents like Sen. Ted Cruz from claiming otherwise.
“The way it works in Washington is, if you’re hiding the text, it means it’s even worse than people think it is,” he told Fox News on Thursday.
“The answer needs to be, fix it and solve it. And we can do that (under) Trump or any Republican president willing to enforce the law. Doesn’t need this bill to do that.”
Although many in Congress are anxiously awaiting the bill text, Trump has already said on social media that there should be no bipartisan border deal “unless we get EVERYTHING needed to shut down the INVASION of Millions & Millions of people.”
Trump as president did not pursue immigration policy changes through Congress but instead used existing legislation in other areas of U.S. law — including Title 42 during the COVID-19 pandemic — to severely limit asylum claims.
U.S. officials at Eagle Pass border crossing sound alarm amid ‘historic’ influx of migrants
The ongoing negotiations come as tensions rise between Texas and the Biden administration over border security. Texas has installed razor wire along parts of the Rio Grande and denied U.S. Border Patrol agents entry to key illegal crossing points, instead deploying state law enforcement personnel to crack down on migrants. The U.S. Supreme Court this week allowed federal agents to remove the razor wire, but Texas has only put up more, arguing it is taking the necessary security steps being ignored by Washington.
The influx of migrants — the majority of whom, experts say, are fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries — has led to crowded homeless shelters and street encampments in cities across the U.S.
While Trump wants to avoid giving Biden a victory on immigration that can be used on the campaign trail, Republicans admit they also face vulnerabilities if they refuse to take a deal.
“If we were given an opportunity, and we decided for political purposes, not to do it, yeah, I think we could be in serious trouble,” Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota told the Associated Press. “A lot of our candidates could be in serious trouble back home.”
Meanwhile, the longer the fight drags out means further delays to Ukraine aid.
The Biden administration sent its final aid package to Kyiv last month, and has predicted the Ukrainian army may only have up to three months of U.S. military supplies left in stock. The Pentagon has said Ukraine is already running out of some types of ammunition and risks losing its air defence capabilities the longer Congress fails to act.
Experts have repeatedly warned that cutting the flow of U.S. aid to Ukraine makes a Russian victory — or at least a peace agreement that favours Moscow — much more likely. The U.S. is by far the world’s leading military donor to Kyiv.
Biden asked Congress in October to approve more than US$60 billion in new funding for Ukraine, as well as US$14 billion for Israel in its operations against Hamas after its surprise attacks on Oct. 7. The proposed national security funding package included more than US$10 billion for additional agents and other security measures at the U.S. southern border, but Republicans have insisted more money needs to be paired with policy changes.
Senators pushing for more Ukraine aid have repeatedly stressed the stakes of not acting, or allowing a compromise that pairs it with immigration policy to fall apart.
“We know that if Putin prevails in Ukraine, the consequences for Western democracy and for the American people will be severe, and haunt us for years,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Thursday. “Democrats are also resolute on reaching an agreement on securing the southern border.”
— with files from the Associated Press