Immigration talks collapse, threatening to sink aid to Israel and Ukraine

WASHINGTON — The collapse of Senate immigration negotiations is threatening to derail President Joe Biden’s national security package, including aid to Israel and Ukraine, even as the White House makes a renewed push on Capitol Hill.

Republicans have vowed to filibuster Biden’s aid package unless Democrats agree to tighten U.S. asylum and parole laws in immigration proceedings. But bipartisan negotiations on a border policy deal, led by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., faltered on Friday amid deep disagreements between the two parties, according to congressional aides with knowledge of the talks.

One Democratic aide said their negotiators have offered proposals to speed up and streamline processing of asylum claims, and even put on the table changes to the “credible fear” standard for having one’s claim approved, against the wishes of immigration advocates. But the aide said Republicans are insisting on “extreme policies” that would “end asylum as we know it” and create “expansive powers to shut down the border,” which they cannot stomach.

“Democrats realize that Republicans are unwilling or unable to compromise on a reasonable proposal that can pass,” the aide said.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., left, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., left, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.CQ Roll Call; AFP-Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer blasted the GOP demands as being “dictated by Donald Trump and Stephen Miller.”

“The holdup on the security supplemental has not been over Ukraine or Israel or over the Indo-Pacific but over the Republican decision to inject hard-right immigration measures into the debate,” Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday on the floor. “We’re willing to make concessions, but we will not keep going in circles if Republicans aren’t interested in meeting us halfway.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, responded to Democratic complaints in a brief interview.

“I think there’s a misunderstanding on the part of Senator Schumer and some of our Democratic friends,” Cornyn said. “This is not a traditional negotiation, where we expect to come up with a bipartisan compromise on the border. This is a price that has to be paid in order to get the supplemental.”

Murphy appeared frustrated with Cornyn’s comments, writing on X: “Apparently I’ve wasted the last 3 weeks of my life since this was never a negotiation — just a take it or leave it demand.”

One Democratic source familiar with the negotiations told NBC News that Senate Republican demands “have moved in the wrong direction” since Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., met with GOP senators last Wednesday.

The source accused Republicans of demanding Pentagon detention camps on U.S. military bases and mandatory detention policies that would subject children to prolonged detention with their families.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., who is involved in the talks, publicly rejected that claim.

“This isn’t true. Getting to yes is hard enough, given the real differences between D and R positions on the border,” Sinema tweeted. “We don’t need potshots from ‘sources’ who aren’t in the room to make it harder. Meanwhile, my state is in crisis while the gov’t does nothing to solve it.”

Lankford indicated that the cause isn’t dead yet.

“We continue to work to find a solution that will protect our national security, stop the human trafficking and prevent the cartels from exploiting the obvious loopholes in our law,” he wrote on X. “That is the goal & we will continue to work until we get it right.”

The negotiations were led by Lankford and Murphy, but other senators, including Sinema, Thom Tillis, R-N.C., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., had been involved as well.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans have made “crystal clear” that “serious policy changes” on the border are a condition for passing Ukraine aid, which he said he supports.

“Apparently, some of our colleagues aren’t ready to take that really seriously,” McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday on the floor, accusing the White House and Democrats of issuing “bizarre public scolding.”

Even if the Senate rekindles talks and reaches a deal, there’s no guarantee it can clear the House, where Johnson is under pressure from hard-liners to reject any immigration proposal short of the House GOP’s aggressive border bill, known as H.R. 2.

Schumer took a procedural step on the Senate floor Monday evening to force a 60-vote threshold vote on Wednesday on a “shell bill” that the chamber could use to pass a foreign aid and border package if they do strike an agreement.

“Hopefully disagreements on immigration do not prevent us from doing what we must do to protect America’s security,” Schumer said.

Schumer also announced that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will address senators via secure video during an all-senators classified briefing on Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET, “so we can hear directly from him precisely what’s at stake in this vote.”

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said there will be serious consequences if the package fails.

“It’s going to be a desperate situation,” he told reporters on Monday. “It’s going to hurt Ukraine. On the humanitarian side, it’s going to be very painful. And I’m sure it’ll be discouraging to those who support Israel’s efforts against Hamas.”

White House budget director Shalanda Young sent a letter Monday pleading with Congress to approve the foreign aid funding quickly.

“I want to be clear: without congressional action, by the end of the year we will run out of resources to procure more weapons and equipment for Ukraine and to provide equipment from U.S. military stocks,” Young wrote. “There is no magical pot of funding available to meet this moment. We are out of money—and nearly out of time.”

Johnson was unimpressed.

“The Biden Administration has failed to substantively address any of my conference’s legitimate concerns about the lack of a clear strategy in Ukraine, a path to resolving the conflict, or a plan for adequately ensuring accountability for aid provided by American taxpayers,” he said in a statement. “Meanwhile, the Administration is continually ignoring the catastrophe at our own border. House Republicans have resolved that any national security supplemental package must begin with our own border.”

He said resolution of the matter hinges on whether Senate Democrats and the White House will “negotiate reasonably.”

Murphy expressed urgency Monday evening.

“The chances are increasing every single day that we end this year without funding for Ukraine, but sometimes, there are moments when you can’t fail,” Murphy said, “This still feels like one of those moments.”