Troubles grow for bipartisan border bill amid Senate GOP opposition

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The bipartisan border bill is looking increasingly like it’s in trouble as Republicans call for more time to review the legislation and a growing number make clear they have no intention of allowing it to proceed in its current form.

Senate Republicans on Monday huddled to discuss the nascent bill and members almost universally called for more time to study the border component that was rolled out a day earlier by negotiators. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has laid out plans to hold the first procedural vote to move toward President Biden’s $118 billion emergency supplemental on Wednesday, but Republicans seem prepared to scuttle that plan. 

According to one Senate source, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recommended to members that they vote against proceeding to the bill if it hits the floor on Wednesday.

“Right now it’s [a] work in progress. I’m not willing to do a funeral on it. Obviously on the House side, they’ve already conducted the funeral on it,” Sen. James Lankford (Okla.), the lead GOP negotiator, told reporters after the 90-minute meeting. 

Lankford added that he agrees with the plan to not move forward on the bill on Wednesday.

“If anyone had a thought that this is a finished product that comes out on it, no, that wouldn’t be [the case]. This still has to go through the amendment process, whatever happens to it,” he said.  

As of Monday night, at least 19 Senate Republicans have signaled their opposition to the bill, including a number of key figures that are close to GOP leadership. Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Katie Britt (R-Ala.) all announced their intention to vote against the bill in its current form. 

Adding to the tumult for Lankford and negotiators, there are signs that more problems could lie ahead with key members. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said on Monday that he has “serious concerns” about the blueprint.

The Texas Republican is widely considered a key vote on the GOP side as he represents a preeminent border state and is a top ally of McConnell.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another key figure, added that he expects a “robust” amendment process in order to improve the bill, adding that the proposal will die otherwise.

A pair of Senate Democrats — Bob Menendez (N.J.) and Alex Padilla (Calif.) — also oppose the bill in its current form, bringing the total of members against it to north of 20. Forty-one senators are needed to block it.

The package would greenlight aid for Ukraine, Israel, the Indo-Pacific and for humanitarian purposes. According to Lankford, the Senate GOP did not discuss breaking apart those items and passing them individually.

For Lankford, the pile-up of GOP opposition comes after months of painstaking negotiations and frustration is already letting loose. 

While speaking with reporters, the Oklahoma Republican chided members who announced their opposition to the bill moments after it was released. He took a shot at Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) for previously saying lawmakers needed weeks to work through the 370-page bill then immediately coming out against it.

Any potential changes to the bill would need to be made with the House in mind. 

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has repeatedly proclaimed that the bill would be dead-on-arrival in the House if it was OK’d by the upper chamber.

Lankford and Sinema both acknowledged that the main difficulty in selling the bill is a widely-repeated claim that it would allow 5,000 migrants into the country before the border can be shut down, an idea they both say is false. 

According to the bill, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has the power to close down the border if the daily average of migrant encounters hits the 4,000 mark. The department would be required to shutter the border to all migrants who do not have appointments if the daily average reaches 5,000. At that point, the border would stay closed until the DHS is able to process all of the migrants.

The asylum-seekers who enter the country prior to that authority being invoked would be subject to a stricter screening process, and the measure ends the practice critics call “catch and release.”

Trying to explain is becoming a headache for negotiators. 

“That’s the part people are really focused on the most to say, ‘Why’s it 5,000? Why is it three years?’ All of the different aspects of it, the complexities of how to actually make it work make everybody’s heads spin,” Lankford said. 

House Republicans say Congress doesn’t need to pass a border bill and that President Biden can act unilaterally. They are also pushing to pass H.R.2, the border package the House GOP passed last year without any Democratic votes.

Lankford said that he has not talked much with the Speaker in recent days, save for a brief text exchange on Sunday night. Sinema said that she has offered Johnson a briefing on the package, but that he has not taken her up on that as of yet. 

Johnson on Monday said he had been shut out of the process.

“I said it would be nice if we were in the room. It would be nice if we had a say in what ultimately that product would look like. We might have been able to head this this mess off at the pass if the House had had its way and it’s will work through that process, but what they produce for us right now, really isn’t a border security bill,” he told reporters.

Proponents of the bill are also staring down the issue of timing.

The Senate is set to go on recess for two weeks at the end of the week, though Schumer has floated keeping members in Washington to work on the supplemental. In addition, the two sets of government funding bills must be passed by March 1 and 8, giving lawmakers limited time to work on the border issue before turning their attention to keeping the government’s lights on.

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