Senate Republicans Attempt to Thread Border Needle in Ukraine Funding Bill

They will have a hard sell, but it’s the Democrats who have a lot to lose

By Andrew R. Arthur on December 7, 2023

A currently stalled White House funding request for $105 billion in aid for Ukraine and Israel has set up a showdown with Senate Republicans — many of whom are willing to pony up the cash, but who also want to bring some sense of order to the chaos at the Southwest border in exchange. Those Senate Republicans are fighting a two-front action; on one front, facing down congressional Democrats and a president who deem any new border restrictions “extreme”, and on the other, House GOP members who threaten to call any deal that does not include full implementation of H.R. 2, the “Secure the Border Act of 2023”, as a “sell-out”. I’ve been there as a staffer in the past, and I don’t envy the negotiators. Senate Republicans will have a hard sell if they can reach a bipartisan agreement, but it’s Democrats who have a lot to lose if it all falls apart.

Ukraine Funding. The Ukraine part of the president’s funding request totals $61 billion, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has pulled out all stops to get it, even attempting to beam Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in for a virtual appearance in a classified briefing on December 5 (he ultimately cancelled, as Schumer explained, because “Something came up at the last minute.”).

There are a significant number of congressional Republicans who are leery of sending any more money to fund Ukraine’s defense against the ongoing Russian invasion. In September, for example, 93 House Republicans voted in favor of an amendment during the shutdown showdown offered by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) that would have barred all military assistance to Ukraine (it was defeated when 126 other Republicans joined all 213 House Democrats against it).

That vote followed a July CNN poll in which 51 percent of respondents stated that the United States has done enough to counter the Russian invasion of Ukraine, compared to 48 percent who believed we should do more to help the eastern European republic in its fight against its much larger neighbor.

More recent polling by Gallup in November reveals that while the president’s Ukraine policy enjoys overwhelming support among his fellow Democrats (78 percent of whom approve), it is markedly much less popular with both Independents (31 percent approval) and especially Republicans (11 percent).

Simply put, there is much more on the line for both Biden and his fellow partisans in Congress with respect to that $61 billion request than there is for the GOP.

Border Security. Speaking of polling, Biden enjoys a somewhat more modest level of support from his fellow Democrats on his handling of immigration. A November Yahoo! News poll revealed that 62 percent of Democrats it surveyed supported the president’s immigration policies, while just 28 percent disapproved. That is more or less where the good news ended for the White House, however.

That’s because two-thirds of Independents — 66 percent — and 90 percent of Republicans disapproved of the job that Biden is doing in dealing with immigration. In total, 62 percent of registered voters disapproved of Biden’s handling of immigration while just 32 percent approved — Biden’s biggest deficit across various issues in that poll.

Congressional Republicans are the big beneficiaries — for now — of the electorate’s discontent with Biden’s miserable immigration performance.

In an early November Fox News poll, just 35 percent of registered voters thought Democrats would do a better job on border security, compared with a solid majority — 59 percent — who preferred the GOP to handle the issue. That 24-point margin in favor of Republicans on the issue of border security was the widest gap in the party’s favor among the 14 issues that were polled.

There is a lot not to like about what Biden is doing on immigration and the border. Encounters of illegal migrants at the Southwest border hit a new monthly high in October, as Border Patrol agents and CBP officers at the ports stopped nearly 241,000 aliens there in the first month of FY 2024.

That’s even as DHS itself warns in its “Homeland Threat Assessment 2024” that: “Individuals with terrorism connections are interested in using established travel routes and per-missive environments to facilitate access to the United States.” In this context, “permissive environments” equates to “open borders”.

It’s no wonder that FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee on December 5 that, “I see blinking lights everywhere I turn”, a reference to the 9/11 Commission’s assessment of the terrorist threat environment in the lead-up to the September 11 attacks. Wray explained:

What I would say that is unique about the environment that we're in right now in my career is that while there may have been times over the years where individual threats could have been higher here or there than where they may be right now, I've never seen a time where all the threats or so many of the threats are all elevated, all at exactly the same time.

Republicans have been quick to draw a distinction between Biden’s concerns about Ukraine’s security and his administration’s insouciance about terrorist threats related to the Southwest border. As Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) warned last week: “We need to be more concerned about securing our own border, protecting our own citizens, our own homeland, before we provide $60 billion of funding for Ukraine.”

H.R. 2. On December 5, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) sent a letter to the White House laying out what his conference is demanding in exchange for a “yea” vote on the $61 billion in Ukraine funding Biden is seeking:

With respect to the Administration’s request for additional Ukraine funding, the position of Congressional Republicans has been clearly articulated since October 26, 2023. On that date, I met in the Situation Room with you, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and other key leaders to present two essential prerequisites: security at our border, and critical answers regarding the funds requested.

... I explained that supplemental Ukraine funding is dependent upon enactment of transformative change to our nation’s border security laws. The House of Representatives has led in defining reforms to secure America’s borders and passed H.R. 2, the Secure the Border Act of 2023, more than six months ago. Senate Democrats have refused to act on that bill.

H.R. 2 has been derided by critics as “a symbolic border security package that mirrors Trump-era immigration policies”, whereas supporters like Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) have lauded it as “the strongest border security bill to ever pass through the U.S. House of Representatives”.

The bill would, among other things, restart border barrier construction, significantly increase the number of Border Patrol agents, restrict funding to NGOs “to provide or facilitate transportation, lodging, or immigration legal services to inadmissible aliens”, reform asylum, require most illegal migrants to seek protection in safe third countries they transited on the way to the United States, raise the “credible fear” standard, and double down on statutory detention mandates.

It would also require full implementation of E-Verify to confirm that all workers in the United States are authorized to work here, and limit the documents that can be presented to establish work authorization.

Given all that (and the fact that, as Carter asserted, H.R. 2 is “the strongest border security bill to ever pass through the” House), it’s no wonder that H.R. 2 is considered to be a “nonstarter” among congressional Democrats and the White House.

Senate Negotiations. Published reports indicate that border-security negotiations are ongoing between Republican Sens. James Lankford (Okla.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), and Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy (Conn.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.), joined by Sen. Krysten Sinema (Ariz.), a Democrat turned Independent who still caucuses with her old party.

While it’s not entirely clear which border issues are on the table in those talks, most outlets suggest they are focused on asylum, parole, and alien detention. The degree to which Republicans’ demands mirror H.R. 2 on those points is unclear, and no language has yet been leaked, let alone published.

Depending on who you listen to, the talks are either going swimmingly or have hopelessly broken down. D.C. being D.C., the truth is almost definitely somewhere in between.

Schumer for his part faults the GOP for having “injected partisan and extreme immigration measures into the debate”.

He blames “Republicans’ decision to inject hard-right immigration measures into the debate” for any impasse, but the leader would have more gravitas on these issues had he not sat quietly while the Biden administration turned border security into the dog’s breakfast, or identified any border security he didn’t consider “extreme” that did not solely consist of more funding to release illegal migrants more quickly.

On the other hand, Politico, a respected albeit left-leaning Capitol-Hill tipsheet, contends that any failures in these negotiations are Democrats’ own fault.

The outlet explains: “While a growing number of Democrats acknowledge that surging migration at the border demands action, most of the party views the border negotiations demanded by Republicans with disinterest or even scorn.”

“Negotiations Were Asymmetric”. Returning to its general editorial stance, however, Politico also asserts:

From the beginning, the negotiations were asymmetric. Republicans say border policy changes are the price for Democrats’ getting Ukraine funding. But Democrats believe it’s misleading to argue that Democrats are getting Ukraine funding in exchange for border policies, those lawmakers argue, since Republicans also support aid for Kyiv.

To that I say, “yes and no”. Plainly there’s support for Ukraine’s cause in the Republican conference, but as the polling I cited to above reveals, American voters aren’t entirely sold on the idea that continuing to funnel aid to Ukraine is either a good idea or that it’s going to make anything there better anytime soon.

In other words, there may be some voters who cast their ballots in next November’s general election based on whether Kyiv gets $61 billion or not, but it’s not clear that the issue will create a groundswell one way or the other.

The fiasco at the Southwest border, however, is likely to move the needle when it comes time to cast a ballot if the situation there is not fixed, or at least ameliorated, soon.

In polling just released by CNN, 12 percent of respondents identified either “immigration” or “border security/open borders” as “the most important issue facing the country today”.

While 12 percent may not sound like a lot (particularly given that 42 percent of respondents identified “economy/jobs/cost of living” as their most important issue), it’s the second-leading issue out of 13 groupings listed, swamping issues like “guns/public safety/violence” (6 percent), “rights/values” (including “abortion”) at 3 percent, and “government spending/taxes” (4 percent).

The only issue, aside from economic ones, that even comes close is “foreign policy/national security” at 10 percent. As Wray’s statements suggest, however, there may not be much difference in voters’ minds between “border security” and “national security”. And if, heaven forfend, some terrorist attack were to happen here, voters will likely forget about their pocketbooks pretty quickly.

Dangerous Games. Simply put, Senate Democrats are playing a dangerous game by catering to their left flank and ignoring the obvious risks that the current border disaster poses.

But then, Senate Republicans are negotiating at their own peril, as well. Many in the Republican conference, particularly on the other side of the Capitol, are already signaling that any resulting border legislation that does not include the full panoply of reforms in H.R. 2 will be viewed as a sell-out.

With due respect to those Democrats who are convinced that the Republican House will cave to a funding bill that does not include real fixes to the border, they may want to get out of Washington for a while and talk to the voters for a reality check.

As the CNN polling suggests, a lot of Americans are a combination of angry and scared about what the Biden administration is doing at the U.S.-Mexico line. Many may not be planning to vote for Democrats next fall anyway, but a lot will vote against the president and his party if the situation at the border doesn’t improve.

Even then, there’s no guarantee that a Ukraine funding bill with real immigration reforms that falls short of H.R. 2 won’t be DOA in the House without Senate GOP leadership really selling the resulting package to Speaker Johnson and his conference.

The GOP has a slim, four-seat majority in the House, and as the ouster of Johnson’s predecessor, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) shows, there are Republican representatives who will have the knives out if they don’t get their way. Many of them are the strongest proponents of H.R. 2.

And 201 Members of the House — 46 percent of the body — have been in Congress for two terms or less, while 242 of them (nearly 56 percent) have been there for three terms or less. They are not used to compromising or settling for incremental gains. They will be an especially hard sell.

Kudos to Senate Republicans who are negotiating with their Democratic colleagues to get real border reform done. There are risks in what they are attempting to accomplish, but the costs are not as great for them as they are for the president and his fellow congressional partisans if a deal cannot be reached. Stay tuned.