Senate Republicans insist their decision to block President Joe Biden’s massive foreign aid package will force a “reset” of the slow-moving negotiations over border policy changes.
But leaders in both parties are already raising serious doubts about the path forward for the foreign aid measure — if there is one — following Wednesday’s failed vote.
Senate GOP negotiators are openly deriding their House colleagues’ posture on the supplemental package. And Democrats are privately fretting that House Republican leaders may send members home for the holidays at the end of next week without acting, a potentially devastating delay for Ukraine.
But the problem starts with the serious public disconnect between the top Republican and Democrat handling the Senate’s border-security talks.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the lead Democratic negotiator, reiterated Wednesday evening that, from his perspective, the talks are on hold because Republicans are making “unreasonable” demands on immigration policy that can’t pass the Senate.
“I don’t want to give the impression that there’s a path here when so many Republican senators are saying they don’t want to negotiate,” Murphy said. “They have to figure out whether they want to negotiate or whether they want to make ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ demands.”
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the top Republican negotiator, insisted that both Murphy and Biden want to find a solution even as he complained that Democrats’ counter-proposals won’t have any impact on illegal border crossings. Lankford also said it was a positive sign that Biden declared Wednesday he’s willing to make “significant compromises” in order to get Republicans to approve Ukraine funding.
We asked Lankford why his and Murphy’s public outlooks are so different.
“I think his frustration is the same as mine. We’re not making progress as fast as we need to make progress,” Lankford said.
But even Lankford is making the case — perhaps inadvertently — for the more pessimistic outlook.
For the second day in a row, Lankford went after House Republicans who’ve said Congress must pair Ukraine aid with H.R. 2, the House GOP’s hardline border-security bill. That measure passed with only GOP votes in the House and likely wouldn’t get any Democratic backing in the Senate.
“How many Democrats did you get on your side? It doesn’t work that way on our side,” Lankford said, referring to House Republicans and H.R. 2. “There’s no belief we’re going to pass a Republican-only bill here with a few Democrats and it’s going to be a Republican bill over there. It’s going to have to be bipartisan.”
Even setting aside Congress’ decades-long failure to pass meaningful immigration reform, some Hill leaders are suggesting there might not even be enough lawmakers who’d vote for both restrictive border policies and Ukraine aid.
“Any kind of a change that reduces, significantly, the flow [at the border] is anathema to [progressives],” Senate Minority Whip John Thune said. “That’s what we’re up against here.”
The same can be said, however, about a sizable chunk of House Republicans who would see any border compromise as insufficient when compared to H.R. 2. These members don’t want to send any more money to Ukraine anyway.
“You’re going to see people in the House as dug in. I mean, this has become a political issue for them. So they’re not going to vote to move no matter what,” Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), a former House member in frequent contact with his one-time colleagues, told us.
Meanwhile, the White House is shouting from the rooftops about a looming funding cliff for Ukraine. The administration’s attempts to convey that to senators fell flat during a classified briefing on Tuesday that devolved into a shouting match over the crisis at the border.
Both the House and Senate are scheduled to leave for the holiday recess at the end of next week. Thune said the Senate would likely need to remain in session up until Christmas in order to pass a border-Ukraine-Israel-Taiwan bill. Lankford wants the Senate to do just that.
“If we walk away at Christmas time, it’s perceived by Israel and perceived by Ukraine… that this is not important, when it is,” Lankford said.
Yet it’s hard to see the House waiting around to pass the foreign aid bill, especially since there isn’t a hard deadline for doing so. Plus, Murphy hasn’t yet seen a reason to “restart talks” with Republicans.
“If the room is just a forum to make unreasonable demands, then I’ve got other things I can do with my time,” Murphy said. “But if we’re actually going to sit down and negotiate and Republicans are going to move, and we’re going to move, then let’s sit down and talk.”
Exclusive: Sens. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) are unveiling legislation allowing military officers caught up in Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) nominations blockade to receive back pay for assuming new posts while their promotions lingered. This bill would also ensure they receive better retirement benefits.
NDAA update: The Senate will likely need to take a procedural vote on the NDAA today, the GOP cloakroom told senators Wednesday night. This is because Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is objecting to a voice vote on proceeding to the conference report, as it’s usually done.
Hawley is throwing up roadblocks after his bill reauthorizing a compensation program for victims of nuclear contamination was stripped from the final NDAA package. This adds another step to the process and could put more stress on the calendar next week.
The bipartisan NDAA text was released late Wednesday night — all 3,100 pages of it!
— Andrew Desiderio