The Senate Border Bill Went ‘Meta’ in Record Time

Media focus wasn't on the border or policy, or even the merits of the bill — but somehow on Donald Trump

By Andrew R. Arthur on February 12, 2024

In advance of publication of the Senate’s border bill — on a Sunday night — I noted that debate over the then-unseen proposal appeared to somehow be shifting to Donald Trump’s blame for its eventual demise. Which is what subsequently happened. The press wasn't talking about the fecklessness of Joe Biden’s border policies (it never has), or even whether the bill itself was an antidote for what ails the border. Instead, the inevitable failure of the take-it-or-leave it deal had nothing to do with the border, Biden, or the bill — it’s about Trump. The Senate border bill managed to go “meta” in record time.

The Coverage. If you (on the afternoon of February 8 — four days after that bill dropped) Googled the search terms “Biden” and “Border”, here are the leading headlines that would appear:

AP News: “Biden determined to use stunning Trump-backed collapse of border deal as a weapon in 2024 campaign”. New York Times: “Trump’s Border Intervention Gives Biden a Chance to Shift from Defense to Offense”. CNN: “Failure of border bill creates a political opening for Biden”. Time: “Biden Urges GOP Leaders to ‘Show a Little Spine’ and Stand Up To Trump on Border Bill”.

Each contains a similar — and identical — theme: Everyone knows the border is in crisis; a bipartisan trio of senators — including Republican James Lankford (R-Okla.) — came together to craft a response; that response would have secured the border; but the resulting Senate border bill won’t go anywhere because Donald Trump doesn’t want to secure the border, but rather wants the border to continue to fester so that he can use it as a cudgel against Joe Biden.

Consider the following, from that Times report:

The legislation would have tightened the rules for asylum seekers, expanded detention facilities, hired more border agents, sped up the process to send back migrants who do not qualify and even shut down the border temporarily during peak times. But it incorporated none of the signature provisions long demanded by Democrats in comprehensive immigration legislation, such as a pathway to citizenship for those already here or protections for younger immigrants brought into the country as children.

Mr. Trump made clear that he saw the deal not as a solution but a threat to his bid to reclaim his office. “This Bill is a great gift to the Democrats, and a Death Wish for The Republican Party,” he wrote on social media this week. “It takes the HORRIBLE JOB the Democrats have done on Immigration and the Border, absolves them, and puts it all squarely on the shoulders of Republicans. Don’t be STUPID!!!” [Emphasis added.]

To be fair, that narrative is being aided and abetted by Lankford himself, as the Times explains:

Mr. Lankford, among the most conservative members of the Senate, attributed opposition to the deal from the right to presidential politics. Speaking on the Senate floor, he said a popular commentator he did not identify told him, “If you try to move a bill that solves the border crisis during this presidential year, I will do whatever I can to destroy you because I do not want you to solve this during the presidential election.”

Lankford’s statement, if made in a court of law, would be objected to on two grounds. First, the statement from the unnamed “popular commentator” is hearsay, an out-of-court statement made to prove the truth of the matter asserted, i.e., that the commentator would do all he could to “destroy” the senator — who’s not up for reelection for four more years.

Second, it assumes a fact not in evidence, specifically that the “bill ... solves the border crisis”. As I’ve explained elsewhere, not only wouldn’t the Senate proposal have done that, but it would actually have codified a key loophole (popularly known as “Flores”) that smugglers exploit to move adult migrants coming with children in “family units” into the United States, making it more difficult for a future administration to close it.

It would also have codified “catch-and-release”, giving the DHS secretary — currently Alejandro Mayorkas, who is facing impeachment in the House in part for his failures to secure the border — carte blanche to release any illegal entrant he wanted, based solely on undefined “operational circumstances”.

Of course, Lankford wasn't making his statements in a court of law but in the court of press opinion and finding a willing and credulous jury of reporters.

Trump Didn’t Have to Kill the Senate Bill — And Didn’t. You’d have to get to the fifth article that Google search turned up, from Capitol Hill tipsheet Politico, before you get to this: “Never mind Republicans, Biden hadn’t sold his own party on border deal”.

It explains that when this proposal went to a procedural test vote last Wednesday, three Senate Democrats — Sens. Ed Markey (Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and Alex Padilla (Calif.) — and a fourth, Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), who caucuses with the Democrats in the upper chamber, all joined the majority of Republicans in voting against it, largely because it didn’t include amnesty.

Proponents of legislative proposals often point to the fact that no one is happy with them as proof that they are “good bills”, but not only wasn't this a good bill (it maked a few improvements, but significantly undermined security at the same time), it was never likely to be a good bill.

Consider how it was crafted. Lankford worked with Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Krysten Sinema (an Independent, elected as a Democrat, who still caucuses with the Democrats) on the language, with the assistance of and input from the Biden administration.

Lankford, however, never told his GOP Senate colleagues what was being discussed (with the possible exception of leadership) and most critically never included House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) in the discussion. Rather, until that bill dropped on Sunday night, Johnson had little to no idea what was in it.

Johnson’s input would have been critical because not only would he have had to shepherd that bill through the lower chamber, he also would have had to put his speakership on the line to do so.

That’s because the House has already passed its own border reform package, H.R. 2, the “Secure the Border Act of 2023”, albeit on a party-line vote. The Senate proposal, however, looked nothing like H.R. 2, and in particular did not include key border reforms in the House bill that would actually bring security.

One theory advanced by proponents of the Senate proposal was that it was just the starting point for debate, and that senators could have the ability to amend it.

Any GOP amendment in the Senate would have required at least 11 Democratic votes to pass, however, and the entire process would have been overseen by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a master of procedure who would control the amendment process.

The majority of Republicans opposing the bill would thus have been shut out of the amendment process, but under Senate rules, at least 10 of them would have to vote for passage. If the bill didn’t garner those 10 GOP votes, Republicans — and Donald Trump — would be again blamed for the bill’s failure.

If the bill were to receive the necessary votes in the Senate, however, it would go to the House where Johnson has pledged not to move it.

As he explained: “This bill is even worse than we expected, and won’t come close to ending the border catastrophe the President has created.” In other words, Johnson’s opposed not because the bill would fix the border and take a winning political issue for Trump and the GOP off the table, but because the bill wouldn’t fix the border.

True, many Republicans in the House would have been reluctant to vote for a bill that didn’t include all of H.R. 2, but a good border bill likely would have gained enough support to pass. The problem, again, is that the Senate proposal wasn’t a good border bill.

I seriously doubt that Donald Trump — who’s not only running his own campaign but also fighting a panoply of court actions — bothered to actively lobby senators against the Senate proposal or even had to. But that’s what President Biden claimed during a White House press conference about that proposal last Tuesday, when it looked like the test vote would fail:

Now, all indications are this bill won’t even move forward to the Senate floor.

Why? A simple reason: Donald Trump. Because Donald Trump thinks it’s bad for him politically. Therefore, he doesn’t — even though it would help the — the country, he’s not for it. He’d rather weaponize this issue than actually solve it.

So, for the last 24 hours, he’s done nothing, I’m told, but reach out to Republicans in the House and the Senate and threaten them and try to intimidate them to vote against this proposal. And it looks like they’re caving.

That statement has become an article of faith in the press, even though there’s little or no proof that any of that is true. As I recently explained:

The flaws in this Senate amendment are so patent that opposition to it didn’t require — or wait for — the sober and detailed assessments of think-tank experts. Rather, just check X (previously Twitter) and you will see that a few thousand people taking screenshots of the language itself were enough to scuttle it.

The Debate Goes “Meta”. Oxford Dictionary defines the term “meta” as:

(of something that is written or performed) referring to itself or to something of its own type:

It's a meta joke. It's sort of a joke about jokes.

I am standing at my desk typing this about the media right now. It feels very meta.

If you want a classic example of the meta form, watch the Woody Allen classic Annie Hall, which beat out Star Wars for the best picture Oscar in 1978.

Technically, it’s a love story about two people (“Alvy Singer”, played by Allen, and the eponymous Annie Hall, played by Diane Keaton) whose neuroses stand in the way of their relationship. In reality, it’s a story about the comic persona Allen crafted for himself (unkempt and insecure) who nevertheless is so successful that his best friend (“Rob”, Tony Roberts) calls Alvy “Max” so he won’t be recognized in public.

In other words, it’s a Woody Allen movie about “Woody Allen”, nothing more. That’s Oscar-level meta.

In less than four days, discussion of the Senate bill went meta, and took the entire border debate with it. Biden and Mayorkas wouldn’t refer to the situation at the border as a crisis until January 26 (when this bill was apparently in the can, but still unpublished), as the president took to the White House rostrum to state:

For too long, we all know the border’s been broken.

It’s long past time to fix it.

That’s why two months ago, I instructed my team to begin negotiations with a bipartisan group of Senators to seriously, and finally, address the border crisis.

The press largely skipped over any real analysis of the resulting product to consider whether it would really “fix” anything (again, it wouldn’t) to instead attack Donald Trump for the fact that the bill’s not going anywhere. That’s an attack on an attack, and it has nothing to do with the border or the bill.

If you want proof, consider the following from CNN, eight days before the bill language appeared: “In recent weeks, Trump has lobbied Republicans to oppose the border compromise being delicately hashed out in the Senate because he wants to campaign on the issue this November”. (Emphasis added.)

There’s a lot of suppositions in that sentence, which links to a separate CNN article from 10 days before anyone saw the text. It includes a number of GOP senators complaining about Trump’s opposition to the process without offering any details, and you have to read more than halfway through it to get to this:

Sen. John Thune, the no. 2 Senate Republican, said the discussions have reached a critical moment but acknowledged they may need to turn to a “plan B.”

“If we can’t get there, then we’ll go to plan B,” Thune said. “But I think for now at least, there are still attempts being made to try and reach a conclusion that would satisfy a lot of Republicans.” [Emphasis added.]

This bill didn’t “satisfy a lot of Republicans”. Maybe that’s the reason why it failed the procedural vote.

If there’s one thing we can all agree about when it comes to Donald Trump, it’s that he talks a lot, and usually says things publicly that should be kept in private. Can anybody point to any statement he made — in front of a microphone, on Truth Social, on Twitter, in an off-hand comment — to the effect of “I want to kill the Senate bill because I want to keep the border issue going?

For further proof, go back up to the Times’ article:

Mr. Trump made clear that he saw the deal not as a solution but a threat to his bid to reclaim his office. “This Bill is a great gift to the Democrats, and a Death Wish for The Republican Party,” he wrote on social media this week. “It takes the HORRIBLE JOB the Democrats have done on Immigration and the Border, absolves them, and puts it all squarely on the shoulders of Republicans. Don’t be STUPID!!!” [Emphasis added.]

Here's the full text, from Truth Social:

I’m not going to comment on the part about fools and “Radical Left Democrats”, but the rest of that statement — about the 5,000-encounters-a-day shutdown trigger and the fact that the border should be closed — is pretty accurate. And the part about the separate immigration and border bill has at least some merit. Why did the Times omit those parts?

To ask the question is to answer it, but the part it did run, about Republicans sharing responsibility for a bill that not only wouldn’t force the administration to detain illegal entrants but instead give Biden more power to release them (which this bill does), is simple political logic.

To recap: We’re not talking about the Biden policies that have created the crisis at the border, or even about whether the Senate bill would address — let alone end that crisis; we’re instead talking about the responsibility of Donald Trump — who holds no elective office currently — for stopping that bill. It’s a debate about a debate, and that is Woody Allen-level meta.

Topics: Politics