Bipartisan border deal faces grim odds in the Senate ahead of key vote

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., the lead GOP negotiator on a border-foreign aid package, speaks with reporters outside the chamber at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. Any bipartisan border deal could be doomed because of resistance from former President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Sen. James Lankford, the lead GOP negotiator on a border-foreign aid package, speaks with reporters outside the chamber at the Capitol in Washington on January 25, 2024. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Fewer than 24 hours after a long-awaited, bipartisan border deal and foreign aid package was unveiled in the Senate, opposition is rapidly mounting in the chamber – making it increasingly possible the bill will not survive a key vote expected this week.

It would take only 41 senators voting against the bill to sink the deal in an upcoming procedural vote, and there are already 23 senators who have signaled publicly they are opposed to it. With so many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle lining up against the deal, the bill is at risk of not getting the 60 votes needed to advance.

“I think the proposal is dead,” Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said when asked about his position on the border bill after departing a meeting in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office on Monday.

A few minutes earlier, as Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa was entering McConnell’s office she had similarly dire warnings about the prospect of passing the bill. Ernst said she is still reviewing it, but also that, “hopefully we can find a path forward, but I just don’t know if that’s possible right now.”

The grim odds facing the bill in the Senate come as former President Donald Trump and House Speaker Mike Johnson have continued to attack the deal, ratcheting up pressure on Senate Republicans to oppose it or risk facing a conservative backlash. Johnson was quick to say after the deal was formally unveiled that it would be “dead on arrival” in the House.

While Republicans opposed to the deal are attacking it as too weak, the bill would mark a tough change to immigration law, which hasn’t been modified for decades, and would give the president far-reaching powers to significantly restrict illegal migrant crossings at the southern border.

The sweeping $118.2 billion legislative package would also provide aid to key US allies abroad, including billions of dollars to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia and security assistance for Israel, as well as humanitarian assistance for civilians in Gaza, the West Bank and Ukraine.

The bill is the product of months of bipartisan negotiations with a trio of senators – Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, one of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans.

So far, 20 Republican senators have publicly criticized the bill, including Montana Sen. Steve Daines, a member of Senate GOP leadership. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a prominent senior Republican, has also said he has serious concerns with the package.

A majority of Senate Republicans are now leaning against the bill or actively planning to vote “no” during the first procedural vote on the package.

“People are still reviewing and digesting the text. And we will figure out from there, based on the input we get from our members, what the path forward is,” Senate Republican Whip John Thune said on Monday.

As for his personal position on the bill, Thune said he said he hasn’t decided.

“I’m like everyone else. I’m reviewing the text. I think James Lankford worked as hard as he could, got the best deal he could under the circumstances. This is something our conference wanted to do,” he said. “We’ll see where it goes.”

He acknowledged that House GOP leaders who have said the bill is dead on arrival had “complicated” matters in the Senate.

Republican Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota said he will vote to filibuster the border deal Wednesday. But he also argued that bipartisan Senate leaders should come to an agreement so senators have more time to fully study and assess the border deal. They should then set up a floor debate that will allow for amendments to be voted on to make changes to the bill.

He said this approach might allow them to pass the funding for Ukraine and Israel — something he supports — and deal with the border deal with more than the three days notice that Schumer is allowing.

“I think it would only be fair to be able to have time to debate the bill, to amend the bill,” he said. “There’s more work to be done.”

Two Democratic senators have publicly attacked the bill – New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and California Sen. Alex Padilla.

Menendez called the deal “unacceptable” in a statement Sunday evening and said, “Accepting this deal as written would be an outright betrayal to the communities we have sworn an oath to protect and represent. If these changes were being considered under Trump, Democrats would be in outrage, but because we want to win an election Latinos and immigrants now find themselves on the altar of sacrifice.”

Padilla said in a statement that it “misses the mark,” adding it will “cause more chaos at the border, not less,” and it “fails to provide relief for Dreamers, farm workers, and the other undocumented long-term residents of our country who contribute billions to our economy, work in essential jobs, and make America stronger.”

Padilla indicated on Monday that there are more Democrats than people know of who will oppose the bill, making it even harder for the bill to get 60 votes to advance on Wednesday.

And independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont indicated in a statement on Sunday that he will oppose funding for Israel, saying, “The United States cannot continue to fund Netanyahu’s horrific war against the Palestinian people,” referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Supporters of the deal have pushed back on the criticism, including what they have argued are misrepresentations of what the bill would do.

Lankford, a top GOP negotiator, said on Sunday that he is “confused” by criticism from Johnson, who declared that the deal Lankford cut with Democrats is “worse than we expected.”

“I’m a little confused that it’s worse than expected since it builds a border wall, expands deportation flights, expands ICE officers, Border Patrol officers, detention beds. How it creates a faster process for deportation. How it clears up a lot of the long-term issues and loopholes that have existed in the asylum process that stops the chaos on the border. So I’m a little confused. I will have to get with the speaker’s team on that to find out what would be ‘worse than expected’ based on the actual text. Hopefully, they’ve an opportunity to actually read the text,” Lankford told reporters in a conference call.

He said he will have “frank” conversations with GOP senators this week about their concerns with the bill ahead of a key test vote Wednesday and said he thinks there are “misconceptions” about how the bill works.

If the deal fails in the chamber this week, senators will have to decide whether to try to pass aid to Ukraine and Israel separate from border and immigration measures. It’s unclear, however, whether a foreign aid package would be able to pass on its own as many Senate Republicans have demanded tighter border security in exchange for aid to those allies.

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