With time growing short, U.S. Senate talks extend on immigration overhaul

U.S. Sen. Katie Britt of Alabama speaks at a press conference on Thursday, Dec. 7, with other Republican members of the U.S. Senate, on talks over border security. From left, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, John Thune of South Dakota, John Cornyn of Texas, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. (Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)

WASHINGTON (States Newsroom) — Members of Congress left the Capitol on Thursday without a deal on sought-after changes to immigration policy that’s tied to aid for Ukraine and Israel — leaving them just one week to resolve the dispute before lawmakers depart for a three-week holiday break.

Negotiations among a small group of senators are expected to continue throughout the three-day weekend, though odds are long that Democrats and Republicans can broker an agreement this year.

That will leave billions in aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan on ice until talks resume in 2024. Both the House and Senate are set to leave on Dec. 14 for their winter break. And national security officials have stressed the importance of getting more military aid to Ukraine and Israel approved this year.

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis said GOP negotiators were presenting Democrats with their latest offer on Thursday, but he cautioned there are a lot of areas where lawmakers still need to reach agreement.

“This is about things that we can honestly go to our Republican members, look them in the eye and attest to the fact that we’re going to have a dramatic reduction in flows across the border on an almost immediate basis,” Tillis said.

“Anything short of that, it’s going to be very difficult to get a majority of our conference, and we don’t move this bill without a majority of our conference,” he added.

Even if Democrats accept that offer, Tillis said, the staff would then need to draft legislative text and make sure it matches what everyone agreed to during talks.

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, of Connecticut, said that Republicans were sharing new ideas with him and other negotiators on Thursday, though he wasn’t sure if those proposals would lead to a deal.

“I’m willing to continue talking if those ideas are constructive, but they’ve got to move us closer to getting Democratic votes,” Murphy said. “So far, we’ve seen proposals that can get lots of Republican votes and no Democratic votes.”

Murphy said he remains willing to compromise on policy issues and said he was hopeful negotiators would “get to a place this weekend where both sides are willing to make compromises.”

Biden remarks noticed

President Joe Biden saying Wednesday that he “willing to make significant compromises on the border” may help to move talks forward, according to Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford.

“We’ve always been a nation open to immigration. We’ve got to be able to stay that way,” Lankford said. “But as lawmakers, we probably should think the law is important. And if, as lawmakers, we don’t think the law is important, then we need to be able to resolve that.”

Lankford argued it was the Biden administration that tied border security and immigration policy to additional funding for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan when the White House sent Congress an emergency spending request that included all four areas.

The White House referred to its funding request for U.S. border security as a “tourniquet” and said what really is needed are changes to policy, Lankford said.

But resolving differences about who should be allowed to immigrate to the United States and under what circumstances has evaded lawmakers for about 30 years, making these negotiations especially challenging, Lankford said.

Speaker’s letter

House Speaker Mike Johnson wrote in a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter released Thursday that any legislation to help Ukraine resist Russia must be tied to border and immigration policy changes.

Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, wrote that while House Republicans “understand the very real security threats in theaters around the world, yesterday’s failed Senate vote has demonstrated there is no path forward on Ukraine funding without meaningful, transformative change in policy at our southern border.”

“Furthermore, as I have said repeatedly, the House passed funding for Israel over a month ago in a bipartisan manner,” Johnson added, referring to a bill that cut Internal Revenue Service funding to pay for the assistance. “I remain hopeful that we will find reasonable partners on the other side who recognize that reality and are willing to reach consensus on these urgent matters.”

Senators on Wednesday were unable to advance a $110.5 billion spending package that would have bolstered funding for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and U.S. border security.

The failed procedural vote on the bill came amid a cooler moment in talks between Democrats and Republicans on border security policy. Those talks appeared to be back in full swing on Thursday.

But it remained unclear if an agreement would be reached during the last week lawmakers are scheduled to be in Washington, D.C. this year.

It was also not entirely clear how a lack of additional funding for Ukraine and Israel might impact the stability of those countries in the middle of ongoing wars.

‘Seize a new opportunity’

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Thursday that he hoped the failed procedural vote would allow senators to “seize a new opportunity to make real progress on legislation that addresses urgent national security priorities — both at home and abroad.”

“I know many of our Democratic colleagues recognize the urgency of this crisis. I know many of them are ready to help restore sanity at our Southern border,” McConnell said. “Well, Senator Lankford, Senator (Lindsey) Graham, and other Republican colleagues are still working hard to do exactly that. And there’s no time like the present to join them in those efforts.”

Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, who is not actively involved in negotiations, said during a press conference Thursday that it’s “common sense” to “secure the border.”

“We need some policy changes and that’s what this debate is all about,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said that Republican negotiators must be more serious with the offers they present.

“Both sides must accept that we have to compromise on things important to each side if we have any hope of passing this supplemental,” Schumer said.

“Let me state, we Democrats very much — very much — want an agreement,” he said. “We are willing to make compromises and concessions to meet our Republican colleagues, as long as they are willing to do the same.”

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