Ukraine aid in growing jeopardy as Republicans double down on their demands for border security

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A deal to provide further U.S. assistance to Ukraine by year-end appears to be increasingly out of reach for President Joe Biden. The impasse is deepening in Congress despite dire warnings from the White House about the consequences of inaction as Republicans insist on pairing the funding with changes to America’s immigration and border policies. After the Democratic president said this week that he was willing to “make significant compromises on the border,” Republicans swiftly revived demands that they had earlier set aside, hardening their positions and attempting to shift the negotiations to the right, according to a person familiar with the talks and granted anonymity to discuss them.

The latest proposal, offered by lead GOP negotiator Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., during a meeting with a core group of senators before they departed Washington on Thursday afternoon, could force the White House to consider proposals that many Democrats will seriously oppose, creating new obstacles in the already fraught negotiation. Biden is facing the prospect of a cornerstone of his foreign policy – repelling Russia’s Vladimir Putin from overtaking Ukraine – crumbling as U.S. support for funding the war wanes, especially among Republicans. The White House says a failure to approve more aid by year’s end could have catastrophic consequences for Ukraine and its ability to fight.

To preserve U.S. support, the Biden administration has quietly engaged in Senate talks on border policy in recent weeks, providing assistance to the small group of senators trying to reach a deal and communicating what policy changes it would find acceptable. The president is treading on delicate ground, trying to both satisfy GOP demands to cut the historic number of migrants arriving at the southern border while alleviating Democrats’ fears that legal immigration will be choked off with drastic measures. As talks sputtered to a restart this week, Democrats warned their GOP counterparts that time for a deal was running short, with Congress scheduled to depart Washington in mid-December for a holiday break.

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“Republicans need to show they are serious about reaching a compromise, not just throwing on the floor basically Donald Trump’s border policies,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday before Republicans made their counteroffer. But the new Republican proposal doubled down on policy changes that had previously prompted Democrats to step back from the negotiations, according to the person familiar with the talks. The GOP offer calls for ending the humanitarian parole program that’s now in place for existing classes of migrants – Ukrainians, Afghans, Cubans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans and Haitians – a policy idea that had been all but dashed before. Additionally, those groups of migrants would not be allowed to re-parole if the terms of their stay expire before their cases are adjudicated in immigration proceedings.

GOP senators also proposed monitoring systems like ankle bracelets for people detained at the border who are awaiting parole, including for children. Republicans want to ban people from applying for asylum if they have transited through a different country where they could have sought asylum instead, as well as revive executive authorities that would allow a president to shut down entries for wide-ranging reasons Further, after migrant encounters at the border have recently hit historic numbers, the GOP proposal would set new metrics requiring the border to be essentially shut down if illegal crossings reach a certain limit.

Lankford, the lead GOP negotiator, declined to discuss specifics after the Thursday afternoon meeting, but said he was trying to “negotiate in good faith.” He added that the historic number of migrants at the border could not be ignored. The sheer number of people arriving at the border has swamped the asylum system, he said, making it impossible for authorities to adequately screen the people they allow in. “Do you want large numbers of undocumented individuals and unscreened individuals without work permits, without access to the rest of the economy?” Lankford said. The lead Democratic negotiator, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, did not quickly respond to the GOP proposal.

Senators had made some progress in the talks before Thursday, finding general agreement on raising the initial standard for migrants to enter the asylum system – part of what’s called the credible fear system. The Biden administration has communicated that it is amenable to that change and that it could agree to expand expedited removal to deport immigrants before they have a hearing with an immigration judge, according to two people briefed on the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Immigration advocates and progressives in Congress have been alarmed by the direction of the talks, especially because they have not featured reforms aimed at expanding legal immigration.

Robyn Barnard, director of refugee advocacy with Human Rights First, called the current state of negotiations an “absolute crisis moment.” She warned that broadening the fast-track deportation authority could lead to a mass rounding up of immigrants around the country and compared it to the Trump administration. “Communities across the country would be living in fear,” she said. But Senate Republicans, sensing that Biden wants to address the historic number of people coming to the border ahead of his reelection campaign, have taken an aggressive stance and tried to draw the president directly into negotiations. “The White House is going to have to engage particularly if Senate Democrats are unwilling to do what we are suggesting be done,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., at a news conference Thursday.

The White House has so far declined to take a leading role in negotiations. White House press secretary Karine-Jean Pierre said Thursday: “Democrats have said that they want to compromise. Have that conversation.” After every single Senate Republican this past week voted to block moving ahead with legislation to provide tens of billions of dollars in military and economic assistance for Ukraine, many in the chamber were left in a dour mood. Even those who held out hope for a deal acknowledged it would be difficult to push a package through the Senate during the remaining days in session.

Even if they reach a deal, the obstacles to passage in the House are considerable. Speaker Mike Johnson has signaled he will fight for sweeping changes to immigration policy that go beyond what is being discussed in the Senate. And broad support from House Democrats is far from guaranteed, as progressives and Hispanic lawmakers have raised alarm at curtailing access to asylum. “Trading Ukrainian lives for the lives of asylum seekers is morally bankrupt and irresponsible,” Rep. Delia Ramirez, D-Ill., posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, as part of a coordinated campaign by Hispanic Democrats. The unwieldy nature of the issue left even Lankford, who was one of the few senators optimistic that a deal could be reached this year, acknowledging the difficulty of finding an agreement in the coming days.

“There’s just a whole lot of politics that have been bound up in this,” he said as he departed the Capitol for the week. “Thirty years it hasn’t been resolved because it’s incredibly complicated.”