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Do we have immigration movement?

When is “progress” progress? The bipartisan immigration-border security-Ukraine talks will test that question over the next few days.

The White House swooped into the Senate negotiations late Tuesday, just minutes after GOP leaders said a deal to unlock Ukraine aid can’t pass by the end of this month. A delay or even an end to U.S. aid could prove disastrous for the embattled ally, according to Ukrainians and top administration officials.

Senate negotiators and Biden administration sources reported progress after a nearly two-hour meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and aides to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Republicans cheered the Biden administration’s expanded role in the talks, saying it was long overdue.

It also came on the same day Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded with lawmakers to approve additional aid this month — only to be confronted once again with the reality that no Ukraine funding will pass Congress without significant immigration policy changes.

CBS News reported Tuesday that the White House backs new authority to expel migrants without asylum hearings, in addition to the “dramatic expansion of detention and deportation” of undocumented migrants. A senior administration official confirmed the outline of the report.

But the whiplash doesn’t change the timetable for reaching an agreement that could ultimately pass both chambers and be signed into law by President Joe Biden. It remains exceedingly unlikely that anything will get done before Congress leaves town for the holiday recess, according to sources involved in the talks. Lawmakers could always be called back if needed for a vote.

Yet the even bigger issue here is whether Biden and congressional leaders can find a sweet spot on both Ukraine and immigration that can pass muster with Speaker Mike Johnson and the very conservative House Republican Conference.

Senate Republicans are keeping Johnson and his staff in the loop on the nascent talks. But the White House’s Senate-centric strategy here is out of a 2021-22 playbook, when bipartisan deal-making was en vogue under a Democratic-controlled House and Senate.

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who negotiated the debt-limit deal with the White House, put it this way:

In other words, the real pathway for a deal isn’t talking to Senate Republicans. It’s working out a deal with Johnson and then forcing the Senate to take it.

But reaching an agreement with Johnson is incredibly complicated. He’s proven to be unwilling or unable to make tough decisions. He’s never negotiated major legislation, nor has his staff. And Johnson is already in hot water with conservatives over his ever-changing positions on FISA and government funding. Legislating on the immensely difficult topic of immigration now would be treacherous.

Johnson has already said H.R. 2 — the restrictive border security bill — is the House GOP position. This has led much of his hardline conservative right flank to adopt an all-or-nothing approach.

“You gotta go back to the policies that work,” House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) insisted. “Remain in Mexico. You come across, we’re going to detain you. We’re not going to release people in the country. That’s what it all boils down to. Short of that, I don’t think you get Republicans to go along with something they’re against anyway.”

Not everyone is welcoming the White House’s last-minute push. Progressive lawmakers and pro-immigration groups are fearful that Biden will cave to GOP border demands out of desperation to secure Ukraine aid. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is holding a press conference this afternoon to speak out against policy changes the White House may be considering as part of the talks.

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) told us Tuesday he’s troubled that Biden would be entertaining Title 42-like authority to quickly deport undocumented migrants, as well as policies that would limit migrants’ ability to apply for asylum.

“It’s just adding to my list of concerns about how the talks are going,” Padilla said. “We should not return to Trump’s failed policies.”

Republicans see Biden as more malleable than most Hill Democrats when it comes to immigration policy, especially given his poor poll numbers on the topic.

To be sure, there are plenty of moderate and vulnerable Democrats who would be comfortable with many of Republicans’ proposed border restrictions. Some Republicans close to the ongoing talks believe Democrats’ lead negotiator, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), is running cover for progressives — and that Biden would cut a deal that’s more favorable to the GOP.

“The key is to get the commander-in-chief involved in the negotiations,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told us. “Sen. Murphy — I have no confidence he is ever going to get a deal we can live with because he’s worried about selling it to the left.”

Of course, Murphy has been emphasizing that the GOP proposals to date simply can’t pass muster with the Democrats whose votes will be necessary to advance any agreement.

— Andrew Desiderio, Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan

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