(Bloomberg) -- Senators are struggling to strike a long-elusive compromise on US-Mexico border policy that Republicans insist is needed for assistance to Ukraine to pass Congress.
Hardliners in the House gambled that they could leverage the assistance Ukraine says it desperately needs — as well as win a long-sought shift in US politics on immigration — to force Democrats’ hand on asylum restrictions and other Republican border priorities.
But frustrated senators, who met privately throughout the week, left Washington Thursday with no deal on immigration in sight and President Joe Biden’s $61 billion request for Ukraine hanging in the balance as that country continues to battle the invasion by Russia.
“Gun reform is a piece of cake compared to immigration,” lead Democratic negotiator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, remarked on the talks.
Murphy and a fellow Democrat, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, said they’ve offered painful concessions but Republicans have rejected them. Republicans counter that Democrats are trying to get a deal on long-sought policy changes, such as creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children.
“It would be going better if Democrats would accept the fact that they’re gonna have to make significant changes to border policy if they want to pass a bill with Ukraine aid in it,” said Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and one of the negotiators.
The Biden administration has struggled for three years to manage historic levels of migrant arrivals at the US-Mexico border, using a combination of policies to provide new legal pathways while deterring unlawful crossings.
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The carrot-and-stick seemed to put a dent in crossings earlier this year, but numbers are rising again. Many of those newly arrived migrants have dispersed to New York, Chicago, and other cities, overwhelming local resources.
The White House, in turn, is trying to manage unprecedented levels of frustration and public criticism from some Democratic mayors and other local leaders.
At issue in the negotiations are proposals to speed and narrow the asylum adjudication process. The government has a backlog of more than a million cases, with most applicants living in the US awaiting a result.
Republicans want to tighten access to asylum by limiting what it means to have a “credible fear” of persecution and making migrants ineligible to pursue a case if they failed to seek protections in safe counties they transited through.
Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, the lead Republican negotiator, said senators had made progress this week. Others in his party weren’t as optimistic.
North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis said the group has made no progress on limiting Biden’s ability to grant indefinite parole to migrants apprehended at the southern border. Republicans fear Biden could make an end-run around asylum restrictions continue to allow unlimited numbers of migrants into the country using parole powers.
“The fact of the matter is we are no where where we need to be on parole,” said Tillis.
The languishing talks mean a Senate vote on Ukraine funding wouldn’t happen until the week of Dec. 11, at the earliest. The Senate plans to leave for the Christmas holiday on Dec. 15.
In the House, Republicans seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach. Speaker Mike Johnson told Republicans on Thursday that no Ukraine bill would pass without border changes.
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The ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus advocates linking Ukraine funding to border policy, long-term.
The group wants the release of funds to Ukraine to be tied to specific reductions in migration. One proposal would release $5 billion in aid for every 20,000 drop in migration, an idea rejected on its face by Democrats.
Representative Don Bacon of Nebraska, who supports assistance for Ukraine, urged fellow Republicans to seek a compromise. “There’s got to be some realism here,” he said.
Lawmakers will receive a briefing Dec. 5 from the Biden administration on the consequences of failing to pass Ukraine aid this year. There is increasing talk of assistance being tied to the must-pass government funding bill needed to prevent a Jan. 20 shutdown.
House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries said his party is open to a border policy compromise but have to see the details. He warned of “dire” consequences if Ukraine aid is not approved this year.
“These are unserious individuals during very serious times,” he said.
--With assistance from Steven T. Dennis and Billy House.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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