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GOP senators fear border deal may already be doomed

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GOP infighting and indecision is already threatening to disintegrate the border deal, even before Senate negotiators release the long-awaited bill text.

As senators returned for a critical two-week sprint in D.C. before a lengthy recess, Republicans are starting to doubt whether the agreement — which would be tied to billions in foreign aid — can pass their chamber. GOP leaders first set out to find a compromise that could win a majority of Republican senators over, but that’s only grown more challenging as conservatives, Speaker Mike Johnson and former President Donald Trump hammer the deal.

Asked if the agreement appears to be on a path toward passing the Senate, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) replied: “It certainly doesn’t seem like it.”

“There are a number of our members who say, ‘Well, I’ll join a majority of the Republicans but if it doesn’t enjoy that sort of support, then count me out,’” Cornyn said in an interview. “The whole idea of passing something that the House won’t even take up is another challenge.”

There are two main reasons for the growing questions about the bill’s future: Trump’s attacks and Johnson’s vows not to take it up. And the two seem related; Johnson said Tuesday he had talked to Trump about the issue “at length” though he denied they are opposing it for political reasons.

It’s a frustrating nadir for a senators in both parties, who have spent more than three months trying to connect an immigration and border deal with billions in Ukraine funding. Republicans, including Johnson, explicitly demanded that Ukraine funding can’t move before border security policies. Now, it seems they’ve cooled on any bipartisan deal at all, and are instead demanding that Biden use his existing executive powers to secure the border.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said that Johnson is trying to kill the bill in the Senate so he doesn’t have to deal with his own complicated politics.

“He would probably love for this to die in this Senate so that he doesn’t have to answer to his members who want Ukraine funding,” Murphy said.

And Johnson’s position has a real effect on Senate Republicans, who may need to provide a dozen or more votes just to clear the 60-vote threshold — depending on how many Democrats defect. But it needs more GOP votes than that for any hope of moving the House.

Those dynamics have raised a persistent and frustrating question among some plugged-in Republicans: Will this even come to the Senate floor?

“The very people who demanded that we have something on the border as part of the supplemental, suddenly all these months later say they don’t want something on the border,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who hasn’t committed to voting either way. “The fact, by the way, that the House may not take it up even if we do pass it. That’s not irrelevant. Why would a bunch of us spend political capital on a cause that can’t pass?”

Cramer praised Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) for leading negotiations on a deal and keeping the conference informed, lamenting that “now a bunch of Republican senators are throwing him under the bus because it’s more convenient politically than explaining the merits of it.”

Johnson and conservatives have criticized the agreement for not automatically kicking in the border shutdown authorities until migrant encounters crest an average of 5,000 per day. Meanwhile, the text of the bill is still under wraps, allowing the party’s right flank to continuously rile up the base by speculating the legislation will only be a boon to Democrats.

Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) were among the senators on Tuesday criticizing the agreement and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s leadership. McConnell appointed Lankford to lead the Republican negotiations.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) indicated that Russia could be behind some of the messaging against the bill: “I suspect that a lot of the internet rumors are very well coming from overseas, where they would love to see this shut down because some people would rather not see funding for Ukraine.”

“You’ve got a narrative out there that is taking hold, not really founded in facts. But I think at some point unless you’re able to win the debate based on the merits of the policy, that the hill is getting steeper,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), a Lankford ally.

Several members of GOP leadership were noncommittal on Tuesday about the legislation amid the fierce political crosscurrents, and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who runs the party’s campaign arm, said he’s heard some “real concerns” from constituents. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said senators are “really anxious” to see the actual text and that she couldn’t divulge her leaning until then.

“People ought to wait and see all the provisions that James [Lankford] has negotiated. And then they’ll realize that it’s an enormous improvement over the current crisis,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

Yet even when text comes out, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said it will have “to be public for quite a long time” before it can advance. The Senate is scheduled to go on a two-week recess at the end of next week.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has repeatedly suggested a vote could take place soon. Meanwhile, a House committee is working to advance articles of impeachment against Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who consulted closely with Senate negotiators.

“Are they going to impeach him because people are coming across the border? Then pass the goddamn bill,” said a frustrated Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “Then you might have some talking points if he doesn’t follow through on it.”

Ursula Perano contributed to this report.