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This is why nothing gets done in Congress on border policy

Texas National Guard soldiers stand guard on the banks of the Rio Grande at Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas, on January 12. - Brandon Bell/Getty Images

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It might surprise Americans to learn that high-level bipartisan talks have been underway to find a compromise solution to the crisis at the border.

It should shock no one who has paid attention to US border policy over the past 30 years that the talks may soon be dead. Even less shocking is that former President Donald Trump can be blamed for killing them.

Trump, the Republican Party’s likely presidential nominee, again wants the border to be his main election issue. He’s opposing any sort of compromise between Republicans and Democrats, especially one that could give President Joe Biden a legislative victory, even as he now acknowledges there is a border crisis. Lawmakers find themselves in a bind, left with nothing much beyond talking points.

Versions of this story have been on repeat for the past several decades. Every recent president, Republican and Democrat, has tried to put his name on a border compromise. They ultimately fail because of hard-line resistance on Capitol Hill.

Here’s the anatomy of how a border compromise never came to be:

► May 2023 - House Republicans pass hard-line border bill. As a Trump-era border policy known as Title 42 expired, House Republicans pass their own policy proposal to restart construction of a border wall, increase funding for border agents and upgraded border technology, reinstate the “remain in Mexico” policy, place new restrictions on asylum-seekers and enhance requirements for E-verify, a database employers use to verify immigration status. It’s immediately rejected by Senate Democrats and the White House.

September 30 – House passes a spending bill without the border element. To avoid a government shutdown, then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy abandons a Republican spending bill that includes tough new border policies and works with Democrats to pass a short-term spending bill.

October 3 - McCarthy ousted. The speaker is kicked out of his position by hard-line Republicans. A chaotic search for a new speaker ensues.

► October 20 - Biden requests $105 billion with a border sweetener. In an effort to get aid for Ukraine and Israel passed through Congress, Biden adds $13.6 billion to his national security package to address border security. Biden makes no mention of border policy in a prime-time address from the Oval Office making the case for the package. But in a letter to House Republicans, his budget director says the money would be spent on 1,300 more Border Patrol agents as well as immigration judges, asylum officers and Customs and Border Protection officers focused on stopping the flow of fentanyl.

► October 25 - New House Speaker Mike Johnson says the border is the top priority. “Inaction is unacceptable and we must come together and address the broken border,” he says on the House floor. “We have to do it.”

► November - A bipartisan group of senators works on a border compromise. Trying to find common ground, meetings are underway between a group of senators, including the Oklahoma Republican James Lankford and the Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, among others. If a deal on the border can be reached, there is hope among lawmakers that it will unlock support for passage of aid to Ukraine.

► November 14 - House passes another short-term spending bill. In an effort to buy more time on a long-term spending bill, Johnson pushes another short-term bill. No border policy changes are included.

► December 7 - Biden promises “significant compromises on the border.” Desperate for Ukraine aid, Biden says in a White House speech that he’s willing to make a deal on the border. He says Republicans have been unwilling to come to the table.

► January 3, 2024 - Johnson travels with House Republicans to the border. The speaker tells CNN the situation at the border is a “catastrophe,” throws cold water on the Senate negotiations and points instead to the bill House Republicans passed in 2023 and which the White House rejected. CNN reports the chances of a Senate compromise passing the House seem slim.

► January 17 - Biden and Johnson meet at the White House. There is some optimism for accord after the meeting that lasts 1 hour and 23 minutes. But in an interview later, Johnson tells CNN he cannot guarantee a Senate compromise would even get a vote on the House floor.

► January 18 - Trump turns squarely against compromise. Encouraging Johnson only to accept a “perfect” deal, Trump helps mobilize the GOP base and hard-line Republicans against any kind of deal.

► January 18 - House passes another short-term spending bill. Still trying to avert a shutdown and without any kind of compromise, Johnson again pushes a short-term funding bill to keep the government completely open through early March.

► January 22 - Compromise group continues working. With more and more focus on the Senate compromise talks, Republican leaders say the cost of the border elements of the bill could increase beyond Biden’s suggested $13.6 billion and that larger policy elements are being discussed. These could include a return to Trump-era policies for asylum-seekers and more.

► January 23 - Republicans feud. After winning Iowa’s Republican caucuses and New Hampshire’s Republican presidential primary, the front-runner to be Republicans’ 2024 presidential nominee throws more cold water on any immigration deal. Senate Republicans feud at a lunch, raising questions about whether they could support a deal.

► January 24 - It’s officially a “quandary.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledges in a closed-door meeting the difficulty of the situation. House Republicans, pushed by Trump, are revolting against the idea of compromise. To be sure, there is always the chance the deal could be salvaged and finalized, and House Republicans could be convinced to accept it. But that currently seems like a very remote possibility, which leaves border policy and Ukraine and Israel funding in limbo.

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