A proposed deal on border security, announced after long and painstaking negotiations in the Senate, has stumbled out of the gate.
Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has declared the push “dead on arrival.” In the Senate — which is typically more open to bipartisan moderation than the House — at least 19 GOP senators have declared they will vote against the bill.
Even if the proposal were able to draw the 60 votes it needs to pass in the Senate — a scenario that relies on overwhelming support from Democrats— it is enormously difficult to see it passing the House. As of Monday evening, not a single Republican House member had publicly backed the proposal.
If the effort fails, it will be a setback both to Sen. James Lankford (Okla.), who was the main GOP negotiator, and to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Its downfall, however, would be another victory for former President Trump. Such an outcome would show that his hawkish positions on immigration can still carry the day and that his broader grip on the GOP remains strong.
“Only a fool, or a Radical Left Democrat, would vote for this horrendous Border Bill,” Trump wrote on social media on Monday morning.
Later Monday, Trump told conservative media personality Dan Bongino that the bill could be “a very bad bill for [Lankford’s] career, especially in Oklahoma.”
Republican supporters of the proposal make two related arguments.
First, they contend that it has real teeth to come to grips with the historically high levels of unauthorized migration currently taking place.
Second, they say that the politics of the moment open an unusual window of opportunity.
The argument runs that Democrats are feeling the heat on immigration because it is such a clear political vulnerability in an election year. With a Democratic majority in the Senate — and a Democrat seeking reelection to the White House — the party has a clear political motivation to strike a deal.
McConnell is among those who argue that Democrats would not have any such motivation if a Republican president were elected and the GOP retook the Senate. In that scenario, Democrats would simply oppose whatever ideas the GOP put forth.
Lankford, for his part, called the proposal “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to stop the chaos & protect our nation” in a social media post.
The Oklahoma senator cited provisions that would raise the bar for migrants to claim asylum in the United States, expand expedited removal of unauthorized migrants, and — basically — close down processing and turn people away if encounters at the border reached 5,000 per day.
The final element, however, has drawn instant fire from the right, where critics paint it as acquiescing to the arrival of up to 5,000 migrants per day.
Meanwhile, critics on the left are outraged by what they see as a move back toward Trump-era policies they regard as inhumane. They also clearly see such a shift on Biden’s part as driven by political expediency.
Leah Greenberg, the co-founder and co-executive director of progressive movement Indivisible, said her organization “opposes bringing back failed Trump-era immigration policies, and we oppose handing a future Republican president new powers to inflict their cruel agenda on migrants and asylum seekers.”
The fact of the matter is the proposal currently on the table is significantly more hard-line than other attempts at immigration reform earlier this century.
Former President George W. Bush, for example, declared his backing for a plan that would provide a path to citizenship for unauthorized migrants during his time in office. A 2007 statement of principles from Bush acknowledged that “America’s immigration problem will not be solved with security measures alone.”
Such language seems almost quaint in the Trump “build the wall” era, and at a time when the former president has cast migrants as “poisoning the blood” of the United States.
Even so, more moderate Republican observers contend that it is the vast influx of migrants, rather than Trump himself, that has primarily changed the politics of the issue.
They note the financial and infrastructural strain placed on border towns, but also on major cities such as New York and Chicago, where new arrivals are provided with shelter and services.
“You can’t have this many people showing up at the southern border every day without some sort of political reaction,” said GOP consultant Alex Conant, who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign.
“I think it has pushed Republicans even further into Trump’s populist positions, but it has also made Democrats realize that something has to be done about the border before you can deal with other elements of our broken immigration system.”
There were over 300,000 encounters at the southwestern border in December, according to the latest data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The figure was an all-time high.
Supporters of the proposal got something of a boost Monday when the National Border Patrol Council — the union representing rank-and-file agents — backed it.
But that seems unlikely to be enough to lift its overall fortunes.
Brad Blakeman, a GOP strategist who served in Bush’s White House, lamented that if immigration reform had been achieved in the first decade of this century “we might not be in the quagmire we are in right now.”
But he also cited the sheer number of border crossings as the main factor driving political opinion in a more hawkish direction.
There is, of course, one more factor to consider: the political reality that Trump and people close to him do not want to hand Biden a tool to defuse an incendiary issue in an election year.
Trump is “definitely a factor, because everybody now sees him as the presumptive nominee,” Blakeman said.
“Even though he is elected to nothing and votes on nothing, he still has the bully pulpit.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. Additional reporting by Rafael Bernal.
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