GOP senators wrestle over border deal in face of House opposition

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Senate Republicans are wrestling over the question of whether to move forward with a Ukraine funding and border security package that divides their conference when Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is warning it probably won’t even get a vote in the House.

Former President Trump, the likely Republican nominee for president, has come out strongly against the Senate’s bipartisan border deal, and Johnson says it’s likely dead-on-arrival in the House. Yet Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) isn’t ready to give up on a deal put together by his handpicked lead negotiator, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).

Senate Republicans debated what to do at a contentious lunch meeting in the Capitol Wednesday, where conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) argued it would be “foolhardy” to keep pushing the bill, given the opposition from Trump and House GOP leaders.

“This is an entirely foolish proposition. It is clear that there is no path for this bill to pass. The Speaker of the House has been unequivocal that the Senate bill is dead on arrival in the House. So I asked my colleagues why on Earth would they be pushing a bill that divides the Republican conference, that unites all the Senate Democrats and has zero chance of ever passing into law,” Cruz said, recounting his arguments at the lunch.

“I think it has functionally become a messaging bill for Democrats to, number one, do nothing to actually secure the border but, number two, blame the chaos at the border on Republicans,” he added.

Cruz’s argument got a boost from Johnson, who panned the Senate proposal on the House floor Wednesday and told House GOP colleagues at a meeting Tuesday that it has no way forward in his chamber.

Two Republican sources familiar with the discussion in the room said that Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) acknowledged that the border security proposal is losing Republican support in the Senate.

“He repeated exactly what Mitch had said [last week] that the politics of this are different. He said we want to have 25, 30 Republicans; we don’t have that,” said a GOP senator, who summarized Thune’s comments.

A second person familiar with the internal discussion said Thune “acknowledged that they’re losing votes on the border deal right now” and that it faces a very tough path in the House.

Several Republican senators in the meeting said there was a discussion about how Trump, who has repeatedly called on Republicans to reject the border deal, wields a lot of power in the GOP-controlled House.

“I remember Thune saying that Trump may not have a lot of influence with senators, but he certainly has a lot of influence with House members,” another Republican senator said.

Some Republican senators are pushing back on Cruz’s criticisms, arguing that Congress needs to do something to stem the flow of migrants at the border, even if it’s not everything that House Republicans want. 

“There are a lot of groups, not just President Trump, that are criticizing it, but they’re shadow-boxing with an opponent that they don’t yet know. Once we get through it and the text is proposed, people can look at the plain text and see some of this is beneficial,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who has been involved in the negotiations.

Other GOP senators insisted that McConnell and Thune are not backing away from a package that includes both Ukraine funding and border security reforms, despite the lack of a clear path for moving it through the House.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said he wants to pass a bill to reform the nation’s asylum laws and isn’t giving up on it.

“If we get text, then people can start getting good information rather than misinformation like what’s out there right now. The sooner we get the actual text, then everybody can start actually forming real opinions,” he said. “Based on everything that [lead GOP negotiator] James Lankford has been able to share with us so far, I think the majority of our conference will be supportive, but time will tell.”

The goal of the bipartisan Senate talks from the start was to produce a bill to fund Ukraine and address the border crisis that would draw the support from a majority of GOP senators, with the hope that would give it enough political momentum in the House.

Now the prospect of mustering 25 Senate GOP votes for the bill is dimming, raising the possibility that Republicans will abandon the effort altogether.

McConnell, who predicted a few weeks ago that the Senate would soon take up the legislation, on Wednesday hedged when asked if he’s still committed to moving forward with a border security bill that doesn’t have support from at least half of his conference.

“It’s certainly been a challenge to try to reach an agreement on the border,” he acknowledged. “I always thought it would be a challenge, and it has been, but it’s time for us to move something, hopefully including a border agreement, but we need to get help to Israel and Ukraine.”

Asked if he would support advancing a Ukraine funding and border security package if it didn’t have the support of half of his conference, McConnell replied, “I don’t know how it’s going to end up be presented.” 

“We’ll see what the final package looks like,” he said.

McConnell declined to comment on Trump’s stiff opposition to the bill and what influence it might have with Republicans in Congress.

But he acknowledged it’s “an incredibly challenging political discussion.”

“I still favor trying to make law when you can,” he said, arguing, “what Sen. Lankford and his team are going to produce is an improvement over current law.”

Senate Republicans adopted a nonbinding resolution sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) at Wednesday’s lunch, stating that the Senate GOP conference will oppose advancing any supplemental spending bill containing a border provision without “adequate time” to review it and offer amendments.

The resolution was adopted by a show of hands. Eleven Republicans voted against it, including McConnell.

GOP senators are undecided how much time would be “adequate” to review the complicated legislation. Lee last week proposed allowing senators at least three weeks to review the legislation.

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