Senate negotiators made some progress in talks over the holiday break on a potential border and immigration deal, which was the Senate Republicans’ requirement for agreeing to a vote on President Joe Biden’s Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan supplemental funding package. Over the weekend, the lead Republican in the talks, Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, said text could be released soon. The fate of that agreement, however, lies in the hands of his fellow Republicans and their fealty to their de facto leader, Donald Trump.
“Text hopefully this week, to be able to get that out,” he told Fox News on Sunday. “This agreement has to work. Everyone’s counting on this actually working.” Senate leaders were cautiously positive on Monday. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a floor statement that “it’s been a very promising few days. We have made more progress in the past couple of days on the border than we have in the past few weeks.”
“I was encouraged to see that Senator Lankford and our Democratic colleagues made progress toward an agreement to put meaningful border security policy at the heart of this supplemental,” said Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. “Russia is openly mocking the fickleness of Western support for Ukraine,” he intoned with a shocking lack of irony, since it’s entirely congressional Republicans’ fault that U.S. support to Ukraine is endangered. “The Senate cannot afford to get this wrong,” McConnell declared.
As Monday wore on, Lankford tempered his optimism and his revised deadline for delivering text to next week, with a Republican conference on the negotiations hastily scheduled for Wednesday to brief skeptical conservatives, showing the cracks that could make Senate Republicans get this very wrong.
Ukraine aid needs at least 10 Republican senators to support it, and they are skeptical at best right now, both on Ukraine and on the immigration deal Lankford is trying to secure. Last month, Republican senators voted unanimously to keep Ukraine aid from moving to a floor vote over the border issue, and now there is a contingent of Republicans who seem intent on torpedoing Lankford’s efforts.
One of them is McConnell’s previous number two, Sen. John Cornyn, who is taking a hard line in the talks on the president’s authority to provide immigration parole to people who have financial sponsors coming from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Haiti. These immigrants are not crossing at the southern border; they fly into the country. Cornyn and others want to severely restrict, if not end, Biden’s humanitarian parole authority. “We can’t fix asylum and then just have them release people on parole,” Cornyn told The Washington Post. “That would be a disaster politically, and otherwise.”
Other Republican senators like MAGA star J.D. Vance of Ohio are egging the House extremists on in their threats to shut the government down over immigration. “I think that we have a real fiscal crisis in our country, but I think the most significant crisis we have is what is going on at the southern border,” Vance told the Post. “And I encourage my Republican friends in the House to use all the negotiating leverage they can to solve this problem politically.” Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas will reportedly try to force a “no confidence” vote on Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in support of the House’s impeachment effort, which won’t advance in the Democratic Senate.
It seems like the most fervent Republican backer of Ukraine, McConnell, is following rather than leading his fellow Republicans at this point, going along with the demands from his hardliners on immigration. That’s a problem for the future of Ukraine, particularly with House Speaker Mike Johnson taking hard line on talks, insisting that the extreme House immigration bill passed last year is a “necessary ingredient” for the deal. He also moved forward with Mayorkas’ impeachment, despite the lack of cause.
When it comes to immigration, Johnson is catering to the Freedom Caucus. That group hasn’t backed off last week’s government shutdown threats over immigration, and are now even more adamant after Johnson’s agreement for a government funding deal with Schumer.
Hanging over all of this is Trump: Republican lawmakers’ fealty to him; his increasingly bombastic, Hitleresque immigration rhetoric; and his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He would likely end all support to Ukraine and hand the country over to Russia if he got back into office.
The specter of Trump hangs over Congress and over Ukraine. There need to be enough Republicans willing to buck Trump for the bleak outlook for Ukraine aid—and thus Ukraine’s future—to improve.
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