Senate GOP blocks border deal; future of Ukraine, Israel aid unclear
The Washington Post February 7, 2024
The Senate voted down a sweeping national security and border reform package on Wednesday after most Senate Republicans banded together with a handful of Democrats to reject the legislation their leadership helped negotiate for months.
The bill included more than $60 billion in aid for Ukraine as it fends off a Russian invasion and $14 billion for Israel in its war in Gaza, and has long been a top national security priority for President Biden.
Senators were set to proceed to another vote on the national security aid without the border reforms before Republicans emerged from a closed-door meeting Wednesday afternoon deeply divided about a path forward. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) held a vote open for hours, hoping Republicans could come to an agreement on how to proceed. He finally adjourned the chamber after 7 p.m. and said the vote would be held Thursday to give Republicans a night “to figure themselves out.”
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said there was a “very spirited” debate within the Republican conference over lunch about whether to vote to proceed to the original supplemental now or delay until the lawmakers have more information about the amendment process. Some lawmakers also argued that they felt they had been led into a political disaster in which they were now being blamed for the chaos at the border, according to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). At one point, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) stood up to plead with her colleagues during the heated meeting to stop vilifying each other, according to a person in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal discussions. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) spent much of the lunch meeting “listening” to his members, Rounds said. Some Republicans want a chance to vote on border-related amendments to the supplemental.
“We just hope they can come to a yes on something,” Schumer said Wednesday.
The vote caps an embarrassing week for Senate Republicans, after Republicans who said they would not aid U.S. allies before addressing the influx of migrants at the U.S. border promptly slammed the very deal they had demanded hours after it was released. Former President Donald Trump, who has made the border a core campaign issue, criticized and mischaracterized the bill, arguing that only reelecting him president can fix the border, which contributed to its rapid collapse of support. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) also made it clear the bill would not receive a vote in his chamber.
“This whole thing is outrageous,” said Sen Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “It’s really embarrassing for the United States Senate.” She said the Republican suggestion to delay the vote for after the Senate’s two-week recess would be a “gift to Vladimir Putin.”
In an angry floor speech ahead of the vote, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the bill’s chief GOP negotiator, said he was disappointed that some of his colleagues were deciding not to try to solve the border crisis simply because it’s a presidential election year. Lankford also said he was threatened by a “popular commentator,” who told him, “If you try to move a bill that solves the border crisis during this presidential year, I will do whatever I can to destroy you.”
Lankford was joined by fellow Republicans Collins, Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Mitt Romney (Utah) in voting for the bill. McConnell, whose staff helped write the legislation, voted against it. On the Democratic side, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Bob Menendez (N.J.), Alex Padilla (Calif.), and Edward J. Markey (Mass.) voted against, alongside Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
The $118 billion bill includes sweeping changes to the nation’s asylum system and a mechanism to effectively shut down the border to most migrants when crossings are particularly high. It was endorsed by the staunchly conservative union for Border Patrol officers and slammed by refugee rights groups, including Amnesty International USA, as containing “the most extreme anti-immigrant proposals this country has seen in 100 years.”
But a growing number of Republicans on Capitol Hill painted the legislation as too soft.
Johnson and his leadership team — who initially demanded House-passed border reforms be attached to Ukraine funding — spelled out their grievances in a joint statement, saying the legislation “fails” to secure the border and would encourage more illegal immigration.
Those in support of the legislation slammed what they saw as hypocrisy. “Sunday morning, there was a real crisis at the border. Monday morning, that crisis magically disappeared,” said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), who helped negotiate the deal with Lankford. “It turns out border security is not actually a risk to our national security. It’s just a talking point for the election.”
Johnson did not say how he would handle the supplemental bill without the border provisions. “We’ll see what the Senate does,” he told reporters.
Trump also slammed the bill’s lead negotiator as he derided the final product.
“This is a very bad bill for his career,” Trump said of Lankford, who is among the conference’s most conservative members, in an interview with radio host Dan Bongino on Monday.
The incident has been embarrassing for McConnell, given that just four Senate Republicans voted for it. McConnell, the longest-serving party leader in the Senate, has made backing Ukraine and the U.S. commitment to NATO a core issue. But he has had trouble finding a way to deliver the votes from his conference, given the issue’s unpopularity among his party’s base and Johnson’s insistence that the House would not pass it without strict border reforms attached.
“I don’t think that the last three months could have been handled any worse than it has been handled from a leadership perspective,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a McConnell critic and skeptic of Ukraine funding. “It’s just been a total disaster.”
A number of Senate Republicans are headed next week to the Munich Security Conference, where Ukraine’s fate will be top of mind.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and several other Republicans said on Tuesday they planned to vote to proceed on the original national security supplemental after the border bill fails. “Now I think we have to move on to Ukraine, Israel and continue to govern,” he said.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said he believed “that Ukraine funding was largely supported in this chamber,” but that no consensus on the issue had emerged.