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Bipartisan Senate group games out border policies to tie to Ukraine aid

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Bipartisan border security talks are picking up in the Senate after Democrats rejected Republicans’ initial offer — and as the border becomes tightly intertwined with any further Ukraine aid.

The early talks are all about identifying the narrow the scope of what’s doable, according to senators and aides. Republicans had already offered a package this week that included stricter asylum and parole policies and building the border wall, which they knew Democrats would almost certainly reject.

After the GOP coalesced around that proposal, senators from across the political spectrum are now trying to determine what border policy reforms Democrats would be willing to accept as part of a supplemental spending bill that would also include Ukraine aid. It’s a similar strategy to the one that eventually produced the bipartisan gun safety law from last year — a relatively modest bill that also represented the most comprehensive firearm legislation in a generation.

That law was possible because the participants only concentrated on areas of agreement rather than pushing for a broader bill. That could be even trickier to pull off on border policies, especially given increasingly slim hopes to finalize a deal before a Nov. 17 deadline to avert a government shutdown.

“We first had to get where Republicans looked at policy that we would all support. We accomplished that.” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), one of the chief negotiators of the gun safety law. “Now it’s going in and having the discussions about defining the contours of the agreement.”

Tillis and Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) have been quietly meeting about the topic, a sign of the serious nature of the discussions, according to multiple people familiar with the talks. Several other senators, including Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), are also involved. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) are also expected to play a role.

Tillis, Sinema and Murphy helped write that gun law. Tillis, Sinema, and Lankford have been involved in immigration talks on the Hill for years. Bennet and Graham were part of the Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of senators who tried to tackle immigration and border policies comprehensively in 2013.

Lankford, Cotton and Graham wrote the GOP border plan earlier this week. Bennet said he took Republicans “at their word that the position they’re taking is an opening position in the negotiation, which is what I’ve heard them say.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies hardened their stance this week, saying a Ukraine bill without border security can’t pass the Senate. That further risks Ukraine aid getting left out of any spending deal, given Congress’s poor track record on cutting border and immigration deals.

But Senate Republicans are trying to give the House GOP, which is far more skeptical of sending more cash to Ukraine, additional incentive to take up a comprehensive supplemental funding package. But first, the bipartisan group has to work out what can even pass the Senate.

“We will see if we can get to a product, but we’re just beginning to work through their proposal and also working through Democratic priorities,” Murphy said. “Clearly, Republicans know if we’re talking immigration there are things that we care about.”

Lankford made clear in an interview that he wants to keep a limited focus: “It’s not an immigration bill. It’s just border security. because we’ve seen lots of big bills just collapse under their own weight.”