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Friday, February 23, 2024

Negotiators in Senate Introduce Far-Reaching Bill for Border and Military Assistance

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The $118 billion national security package is a top priority for President Biden, but faces stiff opposition from former president Donald Trump and his allies.

After months of talks, Senate negotiators on Sunday released a sweeping bipartisan border security deal that is aimed at discouraging migrants from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

The $118 billion national security legislation also includes billions of dollars in funding for Ukraine, Israel, the Indo-Pacific and humanitarian aid, but it has a politically perilous path ahead. Even before seeing its contents, lawmakers on both the right — and, to a lesser extent, the left — flanks in Congress have slammed the measure and House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) called it “dead on arrival” in the chamber. Former president Donald Trump, who has made the border a core campaign issue, opposes the deal.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced that he would hold the first procedural vote on the legislation on Wednesday, leaving the bill’s boosters little time to sell its provisions. “Senators must shut out the noise from those who want this agreement to fail for their own political agendas,” he said in a statement Sunday evening.

The legislation — a top priority for President Biden — would, if passed, mark the first significant action taken by Congress on immigration in decades. It attempts to close loopholes in the asylum process, limit the use of parole for migrants at the border and give the president new authority to effectively shut down the border to migrants when attempted crossings are high. “Get it to my desk so I can sign it into law immediately,” Biden said in a statement.

An administration official also said Sunday the bill would help Israel “replenish its air defenses” as it continues its offensive against Hamas in Gaza, as well as provide funds for U.S. Central Command as it defends positions in Iraq and Syria and continues to clash with Yemen’s Houthis in the Red Sea.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the lead Republican negotiator, called the bill’s changes to asylum “dramatic,” and predicted it would discourage migrants from attempting to come to the United States if passed.

“People come in mass numbers because they’re getting released,” into the country, Lankford said in an interview Sunday. “If the word gets out immediately that it’s not true anymore, people will come in a more orderly fashion.”

The proposal would make it harder for migrants to apply for and qualify for asylum. The bill also encourages quicker resolutions to asylum cases at the border and creates a new removal authority to speedily remove migrants who don’t qualify for asylum.

The bill includes a trigger mechanism that would allow the border to be effectively shut down to migrants if crossings have been particularly high for several days in a row. (Around 1,400 migrants would still be able to qualify for asylum at ports of entry.)

That “border emergency” provision, which expires in three years, would automatically kick in when crossings reached 5,000 per day for several days, but a president could choose to use the tool at a lower number, 4,000 per day. The legislation also scales back the Biden administration’s use of parole at land ports of entry and provides for the hiring of thousands of new Border Patrol and asylum officers, as well as increasing detention capacity.

The proposal also includes some Democratic priorities, including adding thousands more family-based and employment-based visas, allowing work authorization for spouses of U.S. citizens awaiting immigrant visas and guaranteeing access to counsel for child migrants in removal proceedings. The legislation also allows for work visas for those who do qualify for asylum.

Republicans initially demanded a border policy change to pass $60 billion in Ukraine aid requested by the White House last year, and the final deal contains many tough border provisions that Republicans have long hoped to implement.

But the politics of the deal abruptly changed when Trump and his allies began attacking the idea of passing any border legislation — fearful that addressing the border crisis might remove a potent campaign issue for him in an election year. Many Senate Republicans have signaled that they will not support the package, and some have mischaracterized its contents as negotiators took months to finalize the bill text.

“It’s remarkable that we were able to change not just policy over the course of negotiations but the politics of the Democratic base that (they) accepted border security,” said one frustrated Republican senator who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about the likely Republican presidential nominee. “And here we are, Trump once again snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Johnson said this weekend he planned a vote in the House on billions in aid to Israel without money for Ukraine or the border, further complicating the Senate deal’s prospects. “The House is willing to lead and the reason we have to take care of this Israel situation right now is because the situation has escalated,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” before the release of the text.

In a letter to his Democratic colleagues, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) called Johnson’s new Israel-only bill “a cynical attempt to undermine the Senate’s bipartisan effort.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been supportive of the deal, however, as he publicly fights for continued aid to Ukraine as it struggles to fend off a Russian invasion. Schumer has also firmly backed negotiations led by Lankford, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and the White House, arguing that it is the Senate’s responsibility to ensure Russian President Vladimir Putin does not continue his assault on a European nation.

The United States has sent $44 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the 2022 invasion, but the Biden administration warned late last year that it had reached the end of its ability to continue to arm Ukraine absent congressional help. Republican lawmakers began to object to sending more money to the nation last year as polls showed their voters souring on the idea.

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