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‘Changing Politics’ Threaten Senate Immigration Deal
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‘Changing Politics’ Threaten Senate Immigration Deal

A bipartisan border security package in the upper chamber teeters on the brink.

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Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The U.S. and U.K. on Thursday announced new sanctions against four Houthi leaders, all accused of assisting or sponsoring acts of terror, as part of the countries’ ongoing efforts to end the Iranian-backed group’s attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea. “The Houthis’ persistent terrorist attacks on merchant vessels and their civilian crews lawfully transiting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden threaten to disrupt international supply chains and the freedom of navigation, which is critical to global security, stability, and prosperity,” said Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson in a statement released yesterday. Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi said in a televised address Thursday that the Yemeni group remained undeterred, and would continue its campaign of targeting commercial ships traversing the waterway.
  • The U.S. Department of Commerce published on Thursday its “advance” estimate of fourth quarter GDP growth, placing annual growth at 3.3 percent for the period from October to December 2023. The figure represents a decline from 4.9 percent annual growth in the third quarter, but still exceeded economist expectations and demonstrated the economy’s resilience in the face of the Federal Reserve maintaining higher interest rates to combat inflation. A second estimate based on more complete data will be published on February 28, 2024.
  • Former President Donald Trump took the stand to testify in his own defense in a civil case on Thursday, denying all charges in the ongoing defamation case brought against him by author E. Jean Carroll in New York. Trump answered five questions as part of his short testimony, and most of his replies were cut off after a definitive answer was given. 
  • Peter Navarro, a former Trump White House official, was sentenced on Thursday to four months in prison for criminal contempt of Congress after being convicted in September on counts related to his refusal to cooperate with the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. “You are not a victim. You are not the object of a political prosecution,” said U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, pushing back on claims by Navarro that the case against him was politically motivated. “These are circumstances of your own making.” Navarro’s legal team has indicated that they will appeal the conviction and sentence.

What’s Blocking Immigration Reform?

GOP Sen James Lankford departs from the Senate Chambers of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 25, 2024, in Washington, D.C. Senators continue to negotiate a deal to pass a bipartisan Ukraine funding bill paired with immigration and border security reform package. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
GOP Sen James Lankford departs from the Senate Chambers of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 25, 2024, in Washington, D.C. Senators continue to negotiate a deal to pass a bipartisan Ukraine funding bill paired with immigration and border security reform package. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

When a bill in Congress starts collecting multi-variable metaphors that include the term “train wreck,” it’s probably a sign that negotiations aren’t going well.

“This supplemental bill is a kamikaze plane in a box canyon with no exit headed for a train wreck,” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said this week of the Senate’s ongoing negotiations over perhaps the most vexing issue in American politics: immigration reform. 

Months of negotiations between Senate Republicans and Democrats over a border security package tied to Ukraine aid may be on the verge of breaking down. Though lawmakers seemed to be nearing a resolution in recent days, opposition from former President Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee who’s running on a more aggressive border security position than the current deal seems likely to produce, has led some Republicans to get cold feet. Democrats and Trump-critical Republicans have also suggested that, beyond opposing the actual provisions in the bill, the former president would prefer to use continued chaos at the border as an election-year cudgel against President Joe Biden, removing his congressional allies’ incentive to improve the deteriorating situation before November. But opposition to the bill is more than just a question of palace intrigue: The finished deal may not be restrictive enough to please the hardliners in the House and Senate.

As we reported in December, the early stages of border deal negotiations in the upper chamber reflected a remarkable level of unity among Senate Republicans, who, though less fractious than their House counterparts, still have their gripes. The conference had found a point of leverage in the Biden administration’s original proposal in October to link foreign aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan with additional funding for border security: Democrats were overwhelmingly supportive of additional Ukraine aid, and Republicans—some of them much more agnostic on or opposed to continued assistance to Ukraine—had decided the time had come for immigration reform. 

Even GOP Sen. Mitt Romney—the picture of decorum and gentility since arriving in the Senate and a staunch supporter of continued aid to Ukraine himself—got a little testy late last year, voicing his support for border security provisions. “Dems want $106B [for foreign aid]—GOP wants a closed border,” he tweeted. “That’s the trade. But clueless Dems want to negotiate the border bill. Not going to happen. Is an open border more important to Dems than Ukraine and Israel?” The logic of the bargain also once held that a border deal would give Republicans the political cover needed to move forward on less popular Ukraine aid, and Democrats the leeway to sell their constituents on immigration reform.

Over the course of several months, Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut have made progress on crafting compromise legislation that is now “90 percent” drafted, Murphy told reporters Thursday. The full framework for the supplemental bill hasn’t yet been made public, but a provision in the bill would reportedly make it harder for migrants to claim asylum and easier to deport those migrants who’ve remained in the U.S. illegally. The deal would reportedly expand detention capacity and increase the number of Customs and Border Protection officers, while also setting new limits on the number of people who could come into the country each day if the system became overwhelmed, capped at 5,000 migrants per day. (This number is slightly lower than the average of 8,000 migrants the CBP encountered at the southern border each day in November of last year, the latest month for which complete data is available.) 

But on the precipice of a potential deal, Republican unity seemed to have fractured Wednesday when the Senate GOP met privately to discuss the status of negotiations. “When we started this, the border united us and Ukraine divided us,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly told Republicans, according to NBC News. “The politics on this have changed.” 

And what changed, exactly? With Trump winning both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, many in the Republican establishment—including several senators—have begun to treat him as the party’s presumptive nominee. McConnell, for his part, reportedly said that Senate Republicans “don’t want to do anything to undermine” the former president’s campaign, like undercutting his message on immigration. “We’re in a quandary.” 

Sen. Murphy believes the quandary is purely political. “For all intents and purposes—we have an agreement,” he told reporters on Thursday. “We have the outline of an agreement. That is what has precipitated this crisis inside the Republican conference, is that they’ve seen the outline of the agreement, they know that it actually will make a big difference at the border, and some of them are panicking about it.” 

Controlling the flow of migrants at the border has been Trump’s signature policy issue from the moment he descended that infamous escalator in New York in June 2015, and that hasn’t changed in his third run for the presidency. “We need a Strong, Powerful, and essentially ‘PERFECT’ Border and, unless we get that, we are better off not making a Deal,” he wrote on Truth Social yesterday, doubling down after previously voicing opposition to the compromise last week. “Even if that pushes our Country to temporarily ‘close up’ for a while, because it will end up closing anyway with the unsustainable Invasion that is currently taking place.” 

The idea that deference to Trump could jeopardize delicate negotiations that may lead to once-in-a-generation changes to immigration law sparked outrage not just among Democrats like Murphy, but some Republicans as well. “It’s all about politics and not having the courage to respectfully disagree with President Trump,” Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said Thursday. “I didn’t come here to have a president as a boss or a candidate as a boss.” 

A clearly livid Romney echoed Tillis’ lament. “I think the border is a very important issue for Donald Trump,” he said Thursday. “And the fact that he would communicate to Republican senators and congresspeople that he doesn’t want us to solve the border problem because he wants to blame Biden for it is really appalling.” 

But Lankford, heading the negotiations, had a different read on McConnell’s statements, regardless of where Trump—to whom Lankford said he hadn’t spoken in months—stands. “I was in that meeting [with McConnell] and I didn’t take it that way at all,” he told reporters Thursday. “What McConnell said—he was laying out the political realities of where things are. And it was a kind of ‘the elephant in the room’ conversation, to say, ‘Everybody knows, let me just say this out loud.’ But at the end of it, he was very clear: ‘I’m not making a recommendation.’” Even amid debate over the plan’s viability without Trump’s backing, Lankford said, “We’ve not had a pause on [negotiations] at all.”

A lunch meeting Thursday seemed to smooth the worst of the ruffled feathers, even as Trump continued to rage against a potential compromise. Romney told reporters afterwards that he was reassured that McConnell is committed to the deal and to linking it with Ukraine funding.

Even without Trump’s interference, the deal didn’t have unanimous support in the Republican conference, drawing particular criticism from several of the more hardline members. “I actually think Mitch [McConnell] knows exactly what he’s doing, he’s just negotiating for the same objective [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer has,” Cruz said Wednesday at a press conference, arguing negotiators were working in bad faith. “They both want a bill that funds Ukraine and is a blank check for Ukraine. And they both want a fig leaf that pretends to do border security but doesn’t actually do border security.” The group of conservative senators—including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, among several others—were concerned that setting a 5,000-person cap on daily entries may functionally normalize migration at that number.

Other Republicans, however, are wary that this deal is the best the GOP can reasonably expect, even if Trump returns to the White House next year. “To those who think that if President Trump wins, which I hope he does, that we can get a better deal—you won’t,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Wednesday. “To my Republican friends: To get this kind of border security without granting a pathway to citizenship is really unheard of. So if you think you’re going to get a better deal next time, in ’25, if President Trump’s president, Democrats will be expecting a pathway to citizenship for that.”

Though any bipartisan compromise would likely pass the Senate over the conservatives’ objections, the politics are different in the House of Representatives. House Republican leaders—including Speaker Mike Johnson and Rep. Elise Stefanik, the conference chair—are unabashedly supportive of the former president, and the Republican majority has long held up H.R.2, the hardline immigration bill that passed along party lines in the House last year, as the only satisfactory border solution. 

Lankford, at the center of the whirlwind, was staid and pragmatic Thursday. “I have a constitutional responsibility,” he said. “We definitely have a crisis that’s going on. The crisis is not going to be abated in the next several months. We have to solve all that we can possibly solve, and solve it at the moment that we can actually get it solved. … We took an oath to protect the country—I think we should probably do that.” 

Worth Your Time

  • The Boston Herald editorial board published a tribute to Navy SEAL Christopher Chambers, a Westfield, Massachusetts, native and one of the two sailors who went missing and were later presumed dead following a mission to intercept illicit weapons shipments in the Red Sea earlier this month. “In a world where the worst is too often on display, it’s easy to forget that the best among us carry on without fanfare. They don’t spew hatred through bullhorns, they don’t block traffic and buildings in a bid for attention, they don’t deface posters of kidnapped children or burn flags,” the editors wrote. “They aren’t zealous ‘rebels’ espousing the cause du jour from the comfort of a dorm. These are not social justice warriors, they’re real warriors, stepping up to serve and protect.” Special Warfare Operator 2nd Class Nathan Gage Ingram fell overboard that day at sea, and Chambers dove after him, hoping to rescue his teammate. Neither returned. “Members of our military like Chambers and Ingram are not a sought-after political demographic. No one is rushing to lighten their fiscal load in return for votes. Yet they enlist, re-up and report for duty in hotspots the rest of us only see on the news. And sometimes, far too often to bear, their lives are lost in the line of duty. The nation is lesser for it.”

Presented Without Comment

6:15 p.m. ET: Trump responds via Truth Social:

While I greatly appreciate the Republican National Committee (RNC) wanting to make me their PRESUMPTIVE NOMINEE, and while they have far more votes than necessary to do it, I feel, for the sake of PARTY UNITY, that they should NOT go forward with this plan, but that I should do it the “Old Fashioned” way, and finish the process off AT THE BALLOT BOX. Thank you to the RNC for the Respect and Devotion you have shown me! TRUMP2024

Also Presented Without Comment

The Hill: Half of Biden Voters Say Israel Committing Genocide in Gaza

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: Nick wondered (🔒) if Sen. Mitch McConnell’s latest moves on immigration represent a surrender to Trump—or something more calculated.
  • On the site: Charlotte looks into the challenges facing Israel’s reservists and their families, and John McCormack reports from South Carolina on what’s next for Nikki Haley’s presidential campaign.

Let Us Know

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James Scimecca works on editorial partnerships for The Dispatch, and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he served as the director of communications at the Empire Center for Public Policy. When James is not promoting the work of his Dispatch colleagues, he can usually be found running along the Potomac River, cooking up a new recipe, or rooting for a beleaguered New York sports team.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.