Home U.S. News On the Border, Republicans Set a Trap, Then Fell Into It

On the Border, Republicans Set a Trap, Then Fell Into It

On the Border, Republicans Set a Trap, Then Fell Into It

Congressional Republicans thought they had set a clever trap for Democrats that would accomplish complementary political and policy goals.

Their idea was to tie approval of military assistance to Ukraine to tough border security demands that Democrats would never accept, allowing Republicans to block the money for Kyiv that many of them oppose while simultaneously enabling them to pound Democrats for refusing to halt a surge of migrants at the border. It was to be a win-win headed into November’s elections.

But Democrats tripped them up by offering substantial — almost unheard-of — concessions on immigration policy without insisting on much in return. Now it is Republicans who are rapidly abandoning a compromise that gave them much of what they wanted, leaving aid to Ukraine in deep jeopardy, border policy in turmoil and Congress again flailing as multiple crises at home and abroad go without attention because of a legislative stalemate.

The turn of events led to a remarkable Capitol Hill spectacle this week as a parade of Senate Republicans almost instantly repudiated a major piece of legislation they had spent months demanding as part of any agreement to provide more help to a beleaguered Ukraine. Even Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader and foremost Republican advocate of helping Ukraine, and Senator James Lankford, the Oklahoma Republican who invested months in cutting the border deal, suggested they would vote to block it on the floor in a test vote set for Wednesday.

It left Senate Republicans, who had mainly avoided the chaos that has consumed House Republicans for the past two years, looking more like their counterparts across the Rotunda, rocked by division, finger-pointing and even calls from the far right for new leadership.

“A year ago they said, ‘We need a change in the law,’” said Mr. Lankford, frustrated by his Republican colleagues who had been up in arms about the border situation only to suddenly reject the new legislation. “Now the conversation is, ‘Just kidding, we don’t need a change in the law. We just need the president to use the laws they already have.’ That wasn’t where we were before.”

The episode left Democrats amazed.

“Just gobsmacked,” Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, wrote on social media. “I’ve never seen anything like it. They literally demanded specific policy, got it, and then killed it.”

As they sought to rationalize their anticipated decision to mount a filibuster against legislation they had called for, Republicans said they needed more time to digest the bill and perhaps be allowed to propose some changes. But those seemed mainly like excuses. Additional time is unlikely to be a friend of the bill as the politics surrounding it grow more volatile with the approach of this year’s elections. In past immigration fights, failed procedural votes typically doomed the effort.

Plus, some top Republicans said it wasn’t just a matter of a few modifications to the text. They said it was time to move on to the ballot box.

“Joe Biden will never enforce any new law and refuses to use the tools he already has today to end this crisis,” Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 Senate Republican, said Tuesday in a statement announcing his opposition. “I cannot vote for this bill. Americans will turn to the upcoming election to end the border crisis.”

Mr. Barrasso’s statement was just the latest indication that the looming election — and Donald J. Trump’s tightening grip on the party as the expected nominee — had made Republican approval of the border deal all but impossible. Mr. Trump trashed the bipartisan proposal quickly after it was rolled out, and senators who embraced it risked running afoul of him and his supporters.

In the House, Speaker Mike Johnson and his leadership team made it clear they wanted nothing to do with the Senate bill. So even some Republicans who might be inclined to support it could choose not to, avoiding a tough vote for a measure that had no prospect of making it out of Congress.

For Mr. Johnson, opposing the measure represented part of the delicate balancing act he is attempting. He has so far managed to hold at bay the archconservatives unhappy with the bipartisan spending deals he has struck to keep the government open. But allowing a vote on the border-Ukraine package could spark their ire to the point where he would face a challenge to his post as well.

Plus, House Republicans are going to be in a pitched battle to hold on to their majority after two years in charge with minimal accomplishment, and many of them view immigration as a winning wedge issue. Still, Democrats in tough races in both the House and Senate will now be able to say they were willing to accept stringent new border controls, but Republicans killed the effort.

The showdown has put Mr. McConnell himself in a difficult spot. He viewed the border legislation mainly as a vehicle to unlocking the assistance to Ukraine, which he sees as in an existential battle with Russia for Western and democratic values. Should the new legislation collapse, as now seems likely, he will need to pursue some other avenue for helping Ukraine, even as many of his G.O.P. colleagues in the House and Senate are increasingly resistant to the funding.

Opponents of Mr. McConnell sought to capitalize on the policy distance between him and fellow Republicans.

“WE NEED NEW LEADERSHIP — NOW,” Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, wrote on social media after the bill was released. Such calls are unlikely to get any traction, but they do show the increased willingness of the rank and file to publicly challenge Mr. McConnell.

As the border legislation was about to be released, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona independent who helped negotiate the measure, said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Republicans in the House and Senate would be afforded ample opportunity to digest the bill.

“Then they get to make a choice,” she said. “Do you want to secure the border?”

It turns out they didn’t need much time. They made their decision quickly, choosing not to act on the border — at least not before November’s elections.

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