WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans are flailing over how to proceed with tackling the border crisis — an issue they have been demanding action on — after Donald Trump this week personally directed them to reject any bipartisan border deal because he doesn’t want President Joe Biden to get a win ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
Republicans have been hammering Biden for months over the massive surge of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. They have insisted that border policy changes be attached to a broader package of aid for Ukraine and Israel. So, for months, a bipartisan group of senators has been attempting to craft legislation that includes all of these pieces.
That package is “extremely close” to being done and will be ready for a Senate floor vote as early as next week, a Senate source familiar with negotiations told HuffPost on Thursday.
All that’s left to do is “tying up the loose ends and finishing the appropriations,” said this Senate source, who requested anonymity due to the extremely delicate nature of talks.
“This is down to a political decision for Republicans as to whether they want to solve this problem, or whether they want to keep it available for Trump to use it as a wedge” in the election, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the lead Democratic negotiator on the deal, said on Thursday, calling it “95% done.”
But for all their outrage about the need for immediate action at the border, Republicans now appear spooked and scattered over tackling the issue at all, after Trump injected himself into Senate negotiations this week. On Wednesday, the GOP presidential frontrunner directly instructed several Republican senators not to support any bipartisan border bills because doing so would help Biden ahead of the November election.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) acknowledged Wednesday the “quandary” Republicans find themselves in, according to Punchbowl News. He told colleagues in a closed-door meeting that Trump would prefer not to do a border deal, and suggested that moving against the former president would divide the party and threaten plans to recapture the Senate.
McConnell’s message to Republicans set off alarm bells across Capitol Hill about the fate of bipartisan border talks. But on Thursday, several of his colleagues stressed to reporters that the GOP leader wasn’t pulling the plug on negotiations and instead was saying that this is a decision that needs to be made by the entire conference.
“We’re at a critical moment and we’ve got to drive hard to get this done,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters, indicating that GOP leadership isn’t yet ready to throw in the towel.
“If we can’t get there, we’ll go to Plan B,” Thune said. “But for now, at least, there are still attempts being made to reach a conclusion.”
WASHINGTON - JANUARY 25: Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., speaks to reporters in the Senate subway in the Capitol on Thursday, January 25, 2024. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
For weeks, McConnell has been urging his colleagues to link passage of Ukraine aid to border policy changes, arguing they likely won’t get a better deal if Trump returns to the White House. If Republicans do give in to Trump, they would be on the hook for blocking badly needed assistance to Ukraine, as well as immigration reforms that they have been saying are urgently needed to address a “crisis” on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Some GOP senators balked at Trump’s efforts to stop them from passing policies addressing the border.
“The fact that [Trump] would communicate to Republican senators and congresspeople that he doesn’t want us to solve the border problem because he wants to blame Biden for it is really appalling,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters on Thursday.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who supports providing aid to Ukraine, urged colleagues closest to Trump to convince him that the bipartisan deal is worth supporting.
“Don’t be a coward,” Tillis said. “Don’t pretend that the policy isn’t strong. If you want to admit you’re just afraid to tell President Trump the truth, that’s fine. But for you to take a look at this framework and say it’s a half measure, either you’re not paying attention or you’re not telling the truth.”
Democrats could decide to put the bill up for a vote on the Senate floor even if most of the GOP balks. They could essentially dare Republicans to oppose the very thing they’ve been demanding be passed. If it fails to pass, Democrats could then head into campaign season blaming Trump and Republicans for failing to address the border.
A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) did not respond to a request for comment on whether he plans to give the bill a floor vote when it’s ready.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), another senator deeply involved in the talks, told reporters that text of the legislation would be available to review very soon.
“We’re at a point where senators get to decide whether or not they want to take the package that we’ve crafted,” Sinema said. “This is a very serious border package that makes meaningful differences to border policy.”
In an interview with CNN, Murphy lamented the idea that Trump could singularly decide how the Senate operates and do so for his own benefit.
“I hope we don’t live in a world today in which one person inside the Republican Party holds so much power that they could stop a bipartisan bill to try to give the president additional power at the border,” he said. “I would hope that one person isn’t so powerful inside the Republican Party to hand Ukraine to Vladimir Putin.“