Senators are racing to finish work on a border deal as aid to Ukraine hangs in the balance

WASHINGTON (AP) — A deal in the Senate on border policies was being finalized Monday as senators returned to Washington for what could be a pivotal week for a painstakingly negotiated compromise that could open the door for Republican support to replenish U.S. wartime aid for Ukraine.

A core group of negotiators have been laboring for nearly two months over changes to U.S. border and immigration policy and hoped to unveil the legislation later this week.

But the bipartisan group is treading on one of the most explosive issues in American politics, and the legislation faces heavy skepticism from the wings of both political parties, including Donald Trump, the Republican presidential front−runner, and House Speaker Mike Johnson, an arch−conservative who has shown little willingness to compromise on border policy.

With the House on recess, the Senate has an opportunity this week to gain momentum for the initiative. Republican senators want a robust showing of GOP support for the bill to put pressure on Johnson to take it up. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s ability to marshal his conference for the border measures could ultimately decide the fate of one of his key priorities: bolstering U.S. support for democratic allies around the world.

“The entire world understands what’s at stake here in the Senate in the coming weeks,” McConnell said in a Senate floor speech.

It’s a goal shared with President Joe Biden, who is requesting $110 billion from Congress to provide wartime aid for Ukraine and Israel, support allies in the Asian−Pacific and overhaul the U.S. immigration system. However, the emergency funding package has been delayed months in Congress after Republicans insisted that border policy changes also be included in the package.

“President Biden has also made clear he’s willing to work with Republicans in a big way — in a big way — on border security,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said. “All of us on the Democratic side are serious about getting something done.”

He also cautioned: “It’s certainly not a done deal yet."

It remains to be seen whether the border policy changes, which have been negotiated in private with top White House officials, will be enough to satisfy most Republican senators. Democrats have questions of their own, including whether the border policies will harm migrants seeking asylum in the U.S., and some in the party are pushing to condition military aid for Israel on humanitarian standards.

The proposal crafted by a small group of senators would toughen the asylum process with a goal of cutting the number of migrants who come to the southern U.S. border to make an asylum claim. The group has mostly reached agreements on policy changes, but on Monday was working with Senate appropriators to determine funding levels for the programs, according to two people familiar with the talks who spoke anonymously to discuss the private negotiations.

Biden had already requested $14 billion in the national security package to bolster the immigration system, including sending financial aid to local governments that have absorbed the historic number of people migrating to the U.S. But the Senate proposal also calls for the expansion of a Biden administration program that tracks families seeking asylum with electronic surveillance like ankle bracelet monitors until they are given an initial interview to determine if they are likely fleeing persecution in their home country, according to those familiar with the talks.

The Senate proposal would also give federal authorities the ability to expel migrants at the border if the number of encounters reached a certain number. The talks had also floundered on Republican demands to restrict the executive branch’s ability to allow migrants into the country through exceptions to immigration law called humanitarian parole, but negotiators had discussed compromises, including putting caps on the number of people that could be paroled.

“I am skeptical of any demolition of the president’s power in this area,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat of Illinois, who added that he was waiting to see bill details before passing final judgement.

Durbin also said he was worried about the signs of resistance coming from the Republican−controlled House. Johnson, the speaker, has repeatedly called for Republicans to insist on a conservative plan intended to choke off asylum claims. He has also charged that the problems at the border have been caused by Biden’s policies and could be changed through executive actions.

Still, Congress has not made significant changes to immigration and border law in decades and the politics around it have only become more deeply entrenched.

Democrats have bemoaned the Republican decision to tie Ukraine aid with border policy changes. Schumer, D−N.Y., sought to underscore the urgency of the situation, saying that Ukraine is running low on ammunition.

“The future of the war in Ukraine hangs in the balance,” Schumer said. “The security of our Western democracy hangs in the balance.”

Stephen Groves, The Associated Press

Photo: AP

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