American support for Ukraine is in peril in Congress. And the best hope is an underdog Senate gang negotiating over border security.
For the second time in two months, Congress funded the government and skipped town without addressing Ukraine’s war effort. Republicans are threatening to block aid unless it includes solutions to border security, meaning President Joe Biden’s request of $60 billion for the allied country is now anchored down by a complex and touchy fight on border politics that lawmakers routinely fail to solve.
And there’s a big sticking point. The six principal negotiators are arbitrating a dispute over raising the standard for claiming asylum in the United States, with the GOP saying it’s a must-have to move Ukraine aid and Democrats balking so far. Those border talks are ongoing and Wednesday’s discussions were positive, according to a person familiar with them. Senators plan to continue talking over the Thanksgiving recess.
But Senate leaders say they have a long way to go.
“I have a general feeling we are in a very preliminary stage,” said Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is in touch with lawmakers negotiating on the border. “It’s critically important. The aid to Ukraine is time sensitive. People are fighting and dying every day. We need to move quickly to get this done.”
It’s a sign that aid for Ukraine and Israel is more at risk than ever. Lawmakers insist their effort is far from over, and they have powerful allies in congressional leadership and the White House. But the situation is becoming more complicated by the week.
The next must-pass legislation deadline isn’t until January, meaning supplemental spending can’t hitch a ride on a funding bill for the rest of the year. And while the annual defense bill could also spur some momentum for Ukraine in December, House conservatives are signaling even border concessions may not be enough for them to entertain a deal on Ukraine.
In a sensitive congressional negotiation, the fact that everyone is still speaking after a week of high-stakes discussions is a positive sign. But Republicans say many Democrats are still resisting their efforts to reform the asylum standard as the sole way to unlock help for Kyiv.
“There are Senate Democrats and the White House that agree this is a problem that needs to be solved,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), one of the negotiators. “We have some Democrats saying: ‘I don’t want to deal with this.’”
Further complicating matters, Democrats are continuing to push their own immigration ideas while Republicans want to keep the negotiations focused solely on border security policies and funding. Amid that backdrop, Lankford is now working to turn a one-page summary of the party’s border plan into legislation, said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). That could prompt even more haggling.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), another member of the negotiating group, said he sensed that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer may force a vote on a supplemental spending bill dealing with Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and the border sometime after Thanksgiving. Schumer said late Wednesday that he’d be fine passing the package without the border provisions and that Democrats are “making every effort to try and come up with a compromise on border, but it has to be bipartisan.”
Republicans say if Democrats try to make a move without a border deal, they will tank it.
“We’ve got to be prepared to say: ‘Before we get to Israel, before we get to Ukraine, we’re going to have a discussion about’” the border, Tillis said. “We can hold up that spending bill.”
Other portions of the negotiation, such as where to send new money for barriers and staffing, could fall into place once the group reaches a deal on asylum policy. But Republicans want such an agreement to include policies forcing migrants to make asylum claims in other countries, an idea Democrats have serious reservations about.
The marriage of money for Ukraine with new border policies is creating a negotiation that Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) called “one of the most challenging in the time that I’ve been here.” That comes from one of the principal authors of the sweeping Gang of Eight immigration deal that failed a decade ago.
Changes to border policies are hard enough on their own — there’s a reason it’s been decades since a president signed a new comprehensive immigration reform law. Adding the weight of the U.S. alliances with Israel and Ukraine to the mix doesn’t make it any easier.
“Our national security depends on Ukraine and Israel. And, in a sense, Republicans are asking us to cut off our nose to spite our face,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “To overhaul the asylum standards really may create insuperable barriers” to a deal.
Even if the border group — it includes Lankford, Tillis, Bennet, Murphy and Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — gets a deal that manages to pass the Senate, there’s another problem: the GOP House. Republicans in that chamber already passed border legislation packed with conservative priorities and may balk at a more bipartisan deal that’s linked to Ukraine.
Speaker Mike Johnson reiterated to lawmakers as recently as this week that he supports linking Ukraine funding with border security, according to Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.). But conservatives are doubtful that would be enough to overcome widespread opposition to spending more money on Ukraine among House Republicans.
“Someone explain to me how you’re going to get the votes,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas). “We have a bunch of ‘Never Ukrainers,’ right?”
Uncertainty about how the House would address a Senate breakthrough is driving further malaise. Aides in both parties have privately surmised that the whole negotiation could collapse under its own weight and leave Ukraine with no path through both chambers of Congress before the election.
Some lawmakers are dubious that an agreement will come out of the border talks.
“I’m skeptical because the substance that they have discussed so far is not reasonable,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Still, some negotiators aren’t envisioning a deal they expect would appeal to progressive Democrats or conservatives who oppose funding Ukraine at all. An ideal Senate bill, in their view, would pass the chamber via the center-left and the center-right.
That would make it more palatable to the GOP House, according to people familiar with the talks. Even then, though, it might take a deadline to drive action.
“We seem to function best under deadlines,” said Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio). “And obviously [January’s] the next deadline, unless there’s some overwhelming Christmas spirit that takes over this institution and creates some spirit of giving.”
Ursula Perano, Jordain Carney and Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.