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Senate is headed for key test vote on border issue, Ukraine aid

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that he will put a test vote on a national security package in motion next week.
Senate is headed for key test vote on border issue, Ukraine aid
Posted at 8:44 PM, Feb 01, 2024

The Senate will hold a crucial test vote next week on legislation that would pair new policies at the southern border with wartime aid for Ukraine and other American allies, with leaders pressing ahead despite heavy skepticism from Republicans and some Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he will set in motion a test vote on the national security package for Wednesday. However, with some Republicans resisting the timeline and many remaining uncommitted to supporting the border policy changes, the bill's future remained uncertain.

"Our southern border is in urgent need, in urgent need, of fixing," Schumer said in a floor speech.

Senate negotiators are expected in the coming days to release the text of a bill that would overhaul the U.S. asylum system with tougher and quicker enforcement as well as send tens of billions of dollars in military assistance to Ukraine, Israel and other allies in Asia. Negotiators, toiling for weeks to finish the deal, have kept the bill's details a closely guarded secret, but have come under heavy pressure from Republicans who are both frustrated they have not seen the bill's contents and are wary of making any compromise on border security.

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The Senate deal could be President Joe Biden's best chance to enact policies to address a southern border that has been marked by historic numbers of migrants seeking asylum as well as deliver on one of his top foreign policy goals — buttressing Ukraine's defense against the Russian invasion. The Senate readied to proceed towards a vote next week, but widespread support from Republicans, especially House Speaker Mike Johnson, remained doubtful.

"We'll see. I will try," Biden told reporters Thursday morning as he entered a prayer breakfast at the Capitol with Johnson.

Many Senate Republicans have declined to offer support for the bill until they can dig into its details. They are also facing a headwind of criticism from Donald Trump, the likely Republican presidential nominee who has called the proposals insufficient to clamp down on illegal immigration.

The lead Republican negotiator, Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, has tried for weeks to convince his colleagues that the proposal represents Republicans' best opportunity in decades to gain control of illegal immigration — an issue they have made central to their political campaigns. He hoped that releasing the bill would counter the heavy criticism it has received from conservatives and activists.

"I've explained it a lot, but people just need to read the text," Lankford told reporters. "They hear it, but then they read the internet and try to make a decision — which one they believe, the internet or me. And so they got to see the text."

Both Trump and Johnson, the House speaker, have derided one of the bill's main compromises: an expulsion authority that would automatically kick in on days when illegal crossings reached more than 5,000 over a five-day average across the southern border. They both argue it amounts to greenlighting 5,000 migrants to cross the border daily.

But Lankford and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent who also crafted the bill, have pushed back hard on that claim. They said the expulsion authority is only meant to prevent authorities from being overwhelmed with asylum seekers and that any migrant seeking asylum will face both tougher standards in initial interviews to enter the asylum system and a fast-track system that either grants their asylum application or deports them.

If migrants apply for asylum at a port of entry, they would be placed in a "removal authority program" and have their asylum case decided within six months, Sinema said. Migrants who cross the border illegally would be put into detention and removed within 10 to 15 days if they fail initial interviews, known as credible fear screenings.

"The process is really set up to be able to process more people faster, make decisions faster, deport faster," Lankford said.

The overhaul of the asylum system, as well as Biden's promises to "shut down the border" if the bill is enacted, have alarmed immigration advocates who say it would deprive asylum seekers of the ability to have their claims fully considered by immigration courts and undermine the U.S.'s role as a safe haven for people fleeing violence.

"The Biden administration has shown itself to be completely consumed with border apprehension numbers rather than focusing on what is happening at the border with a humanitarian lens," said Robyn Barnard, who directs refugee advocacy at Human Rights First.

Biden's handling of the border could become one of his largest reelection vulnerabilities, and Democrats in the Senate have mostly warmed to the idea of passing a bill aimed at tamping down the number of asylum seekers at the border. The package is also expected to send billions of dollars to the immigration system, including for more Border Patrol agents, asylum officers and immigration judges.

Sinema said that the border policy parts of the bill were being finalized Thursday and she expected the funding aspects to wrap up soon after. The bill's release will likely set up a frenzied effort in the Senate to gain support. GOP senators have said that a strong showing of votes from their conference would give Johnson, the speaker, a reason to put the bill on the House floor.

But Sen. Chris Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat who negotiated the bill, expressed frustration that support from Republicans remained doubtful after they last year had insisted on pairing the border policy changes with Ukraine aid.

"It's wild to me that after working for four months to get a breakthrough deal to fix the border, Republicans are talking about walking away from it just because Donald Trump doesn't like it," he said.

Resistance from the right has stymied past efforts in Congress to pass bipartisan border security and immigration legislation, and lawmakers have not made major revisions to immigration law in decades.

Still, Sinema, who has been central to Senate deals on fraught political issues, departed the Capitol on a note of confidence: "I feel like we are going to get this done."

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