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Mike Rounds

In Halifax, lawmakers warn about Ukraine and border

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — Senators from both parties warned their foreign counterparts this weekend that the United States can’t keep its commitment to Ukraine unless Congress addresses the crisis at the southern border — and that the window for action is quickly closing.

It was a jarring message for U.S. allies seeking reassurances from the bipartisan Senate delegation at the annual Halifax International Security Forum — American support for an embattled ally will hinge on a bipartisan deal on an issue that has long vexed Congress.

“Each of the groups that we’ve talked to — we’ve said this is going to determine whether or not there’s funding for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) told us. “Because how do you go back home and say you’re justifying their defense but you’re not protecting our own southern border? Without the border being addressed appropriately, nothing is going to move.”

For lawmakers, these international gatherings are intended in part to shore up potential concerns about U.S. commitments to various global security challenges. Domestic political issues are always acknowledged, but rarely in such an overt and detailed manner — especially ones as challenging as immigration policy. It came up in nearly every meeting and side conversation, as representatives from allied nations wondered when — and how — Congress would approve more aid for Kyiv.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) met with a Ukrainian lawmaker whom he said was “surprised to hear that border security — not just funding for the border, but a change in our asylum policy — was a demand” from Republicans.

Yet these demands are a reflection of the perilous political dynamics surrounding Ukraine and foreign aid more generally. Public support for the Ukrainian war effort is eroding, even as President Joe Biden vows that the U.S.-backed Western coalition will support Kyiv for “as long as it takes” to defeat Russia.

Back in Washington, a bipartisan Senate group is negotiating changes to asylum policies that could stem the flow of illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border. Senate Republicans are conditioning their support for the foreign aid package on Democrats’ willingness to accept these changes.

But here in Halifax, it wasn’t just Republicans making that point. Democrats acknowledged this same reality during the group’s nine bilateral meetings and countless informal chats — that they’ll need to accede to these demands in some form.

“We Democrats have to do something about the border. I think it’s a real issue,” said Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). “The situation at the border is a lot different than it was 10 or 15 years ago. And maintaining the same kind of policy is not a sustainable position, in my view.”

That a progressive like Welch is saying this could be a positive sign for prospects of a deal. At the same time, Democrats are cautioning that the GOP won’t be able to force them to accept sweeping border policy changes, even though Republicans would have enough votes to block any aid bill.

“I’ve heard from my Republican friends that they think they have enormous leverage and that they can demand of us almost anything. They’re wrong,” Coons said. “The tougher their demands are, the more members of my caucus will refuse.”

Of course, those Republican senators calling for border policy changes that resemble the House GOP’s border bill (H.R. 2) are doing so because they want to block Ukraine aid anyway. However, the Senate’s border group includes Republicans who actually support Ukraine funding and theoretically wouldn’t want to see it jeopardized.

Warnings about the viability of the Western coalition grew more dire at the conference this year. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who co-led the delegation, told us failure isn’t an option but “it’s important to remind people it’s not automatic” in a democracy. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the delegation’s lead Republican, warned of a nuclear arms race if Ukraine is abandoned.

When senators return to the Capitol next week, they’ll have just a few weeks to clear must-pass legislation including the defense authorization bill, as well as the massive supplemental package. This means the bipartisan border group will need to begin socializing an agreed-upon framework as soon as they return.

Nearly everyone we spoke with here agreed that, realistically, the end of the year is the deadline to get it done. Rounds said if the talks carry into next year, “You’d be too late, and I think the funding is gone.”

And then there’s the House. While Speaker Mike Johnson has suggested he’d put a Ukraine funding bill on the floor, this issue deeply divides his conference. Plus, House GOP conservatives will undoubtedly argue the border provisions aren’t tough enough.

Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), the Halifax delegation’s lone House member, said GOP Ukraine hawks he speaks with believe Johnson will honor his word.

“It’s one thing to have somebody who’s very conservative [as speaker]… But you can deal with that as long as you have confidence that person will maintain a deal and bring the conference along with them,” Crow told us. “Speaker Johnson appears to have credibility within his conference in a way that other speakers have not had — an ability to sell a deal, which is going to be very important.”

— Andrew Desiderio

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