Senators on Sunday raced to release a highly-anticipated bill that pairs border enforcement policy with wartime aid for Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies as part of a long-shot effort to push the package through heavy skepticism from Republicans, including House Speaker Mike Johnson.
The proposal is the best chance for President Joe Biden to resupply Ukraine with wartime aid — a major foreign policy goal that is shared with both the Senate’s top Democrat, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and top Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell. The Senate was expected this week to hold a key test vote on the legislation, but it has already run into a wall of opposition from conservatives.
With Congress stalled on approving tens of billions of dollars in Ukraine aid, the U.S. has halted shipments of ammunition and missiles to Kyiv, leaving Ukrainian soldiers outgunned as they try to beat back Russia’s invasion.
In a bid to overcome opposition from House Republicans, McConnell had insisted last year that border policy changes be included in the national security funding package. The bill would overhaul the asylum system at the border with faster and tougher enforcement, as well as give presidents new powers to immediately expel migrants if authorities become overwhelmed with the number of people applying for asylum.
However, in an election-year shift on immigration, Biden and many Democrats have embraced the idea of strict border enforcement, while Donald Trump and his allies have both criticized the proposed measures as insufficient. They have also argued that presidents already have enough authority to curb illegal border crossings — a stance that would ensure immigration remains a major issue in the presidential election.
Johnson, a Republican of Louisiana, in an interview Sunday on NBC’s « Meet the Press » said he was unaware of the bill’s details, but pointed to a House proposal of hardline immigration measures.
« What we’re saying is you have to stem the flow, » Johnson said. He also made it clear that he — not Trump — would decide whether to bring the bill to the floor if it passes the Senate. But in a further sign that Johnson is resistant to the Senate package, he indicated Saturday that the House will vote on a separate package of $17.6 billion of military aid for Israel — a move that allows House Republicans to show support for Israel apart from the Senate deal.
« I feel confident that when our bill passes the Senate and gets to the House, members of the House, including Speaker Johnson, will have had ample opportunity to read, understand the bill and ask questions, » said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent who negotiated the border proposal, on CBS’ « Face the Nation. »
The border proposal, which took months to negotiate, is aimed at gaining control of an asylum system that has been overwhelmed by historic numbers of migrants coming to the border. The bill proposes an overhaul to the system with tougher and quicker enforcement measures. If the number of illegal border crossings reaches above 5,000 daily for a five-day average, an expulsion authority would automatically kick in so that migrants are sent back to Mexico without an opportunity to make an asylum claim. If the number reaches 4,000, presidential administrations would have the option of using the expulsion authority.
Biden, referencing the authority, has said he would use it to « shut down the border » as soon as the bill is signed into law.
The bill would allot $18.5 billion to immigration enforcement, including the hiring of thousands of new officers to evaluate asylum claims, as well as hundreds of Border Patrol agents, according to a person briefed on the package who spoke anonymously to discuss the bill. $1.4 billion of that would go to shelters and services in cities across the U.S. that have struggled to keep up with the influx of migrants in recent months.
Migrants who seek asylum, which provides protection for people facing persecution in their home countries, would face a tougher and faster process to having their claim evaluated. The standard in initial interviews, known as credible fear screenings, would be raised, and many would receive those interviews within days of arriving at the border. Final decisions on their asylum claims would happen within months, rather than the often years-long wait that happens now.
Among Democrats, the tougher asylum standards have raised concern, especially from progressive and Hispanic lawmakers. While the wings of both parties have been openly critical of the policies under discussion, many have withheld final judgment until they can review the text of the bill, which has been a closely guarded secret in the Capitol.
House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries suggested in an interview on ABC’s « This Week » that he would be supportive if it gets to the House.
« It should not be dead on arrival, » he said. « We need more common sense in Washington, D.C., less conflict and less chaos. We’re in a period of divided government. That means we should be trying to find bipartisan common ground. »
Senators finalized the border proposal on Friday, but other portions of the package, including aid for U.S. allies, investments in defense manufacturing capabilities and humanitarian assistance for people caught up in conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine, were still being negotiated by Senate appropriators.