Senators working to reach a deal on toughening up U.S. border policy in exchange for sending more aid to Ukraine are continuing to hold hours-long meetings every day in the Capitol as they make slow progress on the proposal with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
But dozens of their Republican colleagues did not return to Washington this week to await the deal, as congressional leaders conceded there would be nothing to vote on before the holidays.
“No matter how long it takes, we must succeed because the stakes are high,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). The Senate is set to leave town on Wednesday and return Jan. 8.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby on Tuesday said it was “critical” that Congress pass the bill because the White House only has one more security assistance package they can deploy to Ukraine as it fends off a Russian invasion before the end of the year, when funds will run out.
But when they return in early January, lawmakers face a rush of funding deadlines that could make it even harder to push through the complex deal that would provide $110 billion to arm Ukraine and Israel, beef up border security, and provide humanitarian aid in Gaza and elsewhere as a government shutdown looms.
“It’s a mess,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, referencing the Jan. 19 deadline to fund several critical functions of the federal government. “A lot of deadlines we face in the first few weeks of next year — and we don’t have a great record when it comes to that.”
Congress has not passed major immigration reform in 30 years, and the overall package contains significant political risks for both Democrats and Republicans.
“I’ve been doing political work for over 20 years, and this is the hardest issue ever,” Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), one of the three main Senate negotiators, said in an interview with The Washington Post last week. “It’s hard because it’s very emotional for people on both sides of the aisle, like viscerally emotional, but it’s also the most complex area of law in our federal system.”
The GOP-controlled House and Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) have also been noncommittal about whether they would pass the package even if the Senate reaches a deal, with many conservative members demanding more sweeping immigration changes and opposing Ukraine aid altogether.
Negotiators said they would take just a quick break to celebrate Christmas, and work through the rest of the holiday to clinch a deal.
“The negotiators plan to continue to work through the holidays so that when we come back there is a finished product rather than more negotiations,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “But the history of trying to do anything with immigration reform is not hopeful on the idea of speed.”
Senators have kept details of their talks under wraps, even among their colleagues, but senators and aides briefed on the negotiations said they are discussing a mechanism to summarily expel migrants when border crossings are particularly high and a policy change allowing for speedy deportations of some migrants who lose their immigration cases, among other issues. Republicans would also like to scale back the federal government’s power to allow certain categories of immigrants to remain in the country temporarily for humanitarian reasons. One area of agreement: Both sides are in favor of raising the standard for qualifying to apply for asylum.
In the past, lawmakers debating toughening up border policy have often paired those policies with pathways to legal status for immigrants already in the United States. Republicans have not entertained any legalization push this time, however, saying the border is a crucial national security issue and must be secured without concessions to win their votes for Ukraine aid.
Sinema said the negotiators continued to make progress on Tuesday. “The only update I have for you is we are still working,” she said.
“We are closer than ever before to an agreement,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), another negotiator, who added he planned to just take a day and a half off for Christmas before getting back to the talks.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the chief Republican negotiator, said in a statement the senators still had “multiple unresolved issues” that would take “weeks” to work out.
Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a joint statement they hoped the Senate would take “swift action on the national security supplemental early in the new year.” The daily talks have involved their staff, the core group of senators and Mayorkas. But even though Schumer kept the Senate in session this week to keep momentum building on the deal, the deadline of passing the aid by the end of the year has slipped away.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, called getting a deal passed before Christmas “impossible.”
A majority of voters disapprove of how President Biden has handled the border, and reaching a deal could boost his chances for reelection in 2024. But immigrant rights groups are raising the alarm about potential changes to asylum law, and some Democratic lawmakers have also said they already oppose the deal.
“I’m disappointed the administration has not engaged with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in a meaningful way and looks ready to cave to inhumane policy changes to our asylum system and immigration policy,” said Rep. Gabe Vasquez (D-N.M.) in a statement.
Former president Donald Trump has made the large numbers of migrants showing up at the U.S. border with Mexico a key campaign issue, recently saying the migrants are “poisoning” the blood of the country, which civil rights groups have compared to the writings of Adolf Hitler. Some liberals have bashed Democrats and the White House for considering policies they say are more in line with Trump’s.
“What Donald Trump did and said was despicable,” Schumer said when asked about the comments on Tuesday. “But we do have a problem at the border … and Democrats know we have to help solve that problem, but in keeping with our principles.”
Republican voters, meanwhile, oppose further aid to Ukraine, according to polls, and many Republican lawmakers, especially in the House, have said they don’t want to send further aid to that nation.
“That’s what this sort of deal is all about,” Durbin said. “You got to have unhappy people on both sides of the table.”
Negotiators say they are trying to block out the controversy as they continue to work to find agreement.
“I haven’t spent much time worrying about that on either side, because my goal is to get to a solution,” Sinema said.
Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.