President Joe Biden made an urgent plea over the weekend for US support to bolster Ukraine and Israel at a time of war, saying the world faces “an inflection point” that could set the course for the next generation.
But on Capitol Hill, the prospects of any such aid package for the two countries appear as grim as ever.
“We may not have a supplemental,” Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, said matter-of-factly of the national security package stalled in Congress if an immigration dispute couldn’t be worked out.
Unlike other instances where Congress tends to quickly approve urgently needed aid, lawmakers in both parties are now openly questioning whether an emergency package for Israel and Ukraine can get done at all. The House and the Senate are badly split over whether to continue supporting Ukraine – and now the intractable issue of immigration policy has been injected into the center of the talks.
Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer want to keep funding for the two countries in one big package – a position opposed by the new speaker, Mike Johnson, whose bill to provide only Israel with funding along with IRS cuts was quickly rejected by Senate Democrats. Johnson has continued to insist that any emergency package include spending cuts to offset its price tag, a complicated task to pull off and a demand rarely made by party leaders since doing so could bog down urgently needed funding.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Johnson insist that GOP support for more Ukraine funding is contingent on tightening immigration laws amid growing concerns about security at the border with Mexico. Yet finding an immigration deal that will satisfy House Republicans – and won’t cause a full-on revolt on the left – seems highly unlikely at best, lawmakers concede.
“I think it’s a triple bank shot to do something that we haven’t done in 40 years as a condition to support Ukraine funding,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who is part of the negotiating group on immigration.
“I still think the likelihood of success is not hot,” Murphy said, adding that talks are continuing but that “no” he wasn’t confident a deal could be reached.
A source familiar with the talks insists that progress is being made and that in-person talks last week on the Hill were productive. But Republicans have pushed for a border deal that Democrats say too closely reflects the House Republicans’ immigration bill, which included a resumption of construction of former President Donald Trump’s border wall and other policies that have been rejected by most Senate Democrats.
The White House’s funding request in October included $13.6 billion in additional funding for the border that would allow the US to hire an additional 1,300 border patrol agents and 1,600 asylum officers who could help speed up the processing of migrants with asylum claims.
But Republicans are insisting that they’ll need more than just funding at the border. They want wholesale policy changes including revamping how migrants seek asylum in the United States.
One idea being floated is raising the credible fear standard for seeking asylum so that it would be harder for migrants to pursue asylum status to begin with. It’s a process that some Republicans have argued is being abused and leading to a major influx at the southern border.
A group of Senate Republicans, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma, also released policy changes earlier this month they wanted to see, which included an overhaul of how the Biden Administration manages parole and would require families to be detained together in Department of Homeland Security custody.
“We’ve still got to overcome that foundational hurdle,” said North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, one of the GOP negotiators. “Our members are absolutely calling for something measurable. They don’t trust the administration to implement just based on funding provisions. We need provisions that have the effect of law to get them to follow through.”
The White House’s request also included more than $61 billion for aid to Ukraine, more than $14 billion for Israel, and $7.4 billion for Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific region.
Graham, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a staunch advocate for more Ukraine aid, told CNN late last week that a deal “is a ways away” on immigration.
“I’ve got one goal: (it) is to deter people from coming,” Graham said. “And if that’s not the Democratic goal, well, we will not get there.”
An uncertain path in the House and divisions over Israel
Senate negotiators say they’re trying to keep the parameters of an immigration negotiation narrow, knowing a comprehensive approach would only further complicate passage of Ukraine aid. But a narrow plan could face a furious backlash from House Republicans, who have made border security and stricter immigration laws a centerpiece of their demands for legislative action.
Johnson so far has signaled an openness to Ukraine aid as long as border security is also handled to his satisfaction. But he has yet to fully specify what he would agree to in exchange for advancing Ukraine aid.
Hard-right Republicans are warning Johnson not to accept any deal that they consider too weak on immigration in exchange for Ukraine aid, which has dwindling GOP support in the House.
Texas Rep. Chip Roy, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, told CNN last week that an immigration deal he finds watered down would amount to “strike three” for the new speaker – after Johnson infuriated his right-flank over his decision to extend government funding until early next year without any spending cuts.
Roy added that the speaker would face a revolt by “not moving actual border security and then trying to claim that you did — if anything happens with respect to trying to move something on the back of Ukraine (aid) and then claiming that it’s securing the border when it doesn’t.” He added: “That will be an unacceptable outcome.”
Some hardliners are making even more dire warnings, saying Johnson should abandon Ukraine aid completely.
“I know people, especially MAGA, especially the Republican base, they absolutely will be furious with our new speaker if he is tying Ukraine money, billions and billions more money” to border security, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia told CNN. “And our speaker is going to tell Americans that Ukraine is on the same level as America’s border? No way. They’re not going to like it.”
Greene said that a recent conversation with the speaker did little to satisfy her. “He tried to urge me that ‘Oh, we’ve got to get some wins for our border, Marjorie.’ But I’m not buying it.”
But Biden is facing some pressure on the left as well – over Israel. As polls show Democratic support slipping over how Israel is prosecuting its war against Hamas, some progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders want aid to Israel to come with strict conditions.
Sanders, an independent from Vermont, has released an extensive list of demands for the Israeli government in order to win US financial backing. Those demands include “an end to the indiscriminate bombing,” a “right of displaced Gazans to return to their homes,” “a freeze on settlement expansion” in the West Bank, and no long-term occupation of Gaza by Israeli forces as well as commitments to engage in peace talks.
That has prompted pushback in the ranks.
“Conditioning aid to Israel will only have one outcome: it would help Hamas in their goal of completely annihilating Israel and the Jewish people. It would weaken America’s national security and our fight against terror,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, a prominent Jewish Democrat. “Any legislation that conditions security aid to our key democratic ally, Israel, is a nonstarter and will lose scores of votes.”
Other Democrats agree.
“We do not need any conditions on military aid to Israel,” said Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, a freshman Democrat.
The Biden administration and some Republicans on the Hill have argued that aid to Ukraine only strengthens US security. And the administration has sought to project to international partners that the US will stand by Ukraine in its continued fight to preserve its democracy. On Monday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Ukraine, telling officials there the “United States of America is with you.”
“We will remain with you for the long-haul. What happened here in Ukraine, that not only matters to Ukraine, but it matters to the rest of the world. It certainly matters to the United States of America,” Austin said.
But there are no guarantees that Congress can find a path forward as US officials have been warning that funding for Ukraine is almost out.
“We are having to make tough decisions right now about the security assistance packages that we are providing to Ukraine because we are coming near the end of the rope and Ukraine continues to be involved in an active, dynamic fight all along that front,” said John Kirby, the White House’s National Security Council spokesman.