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Senators leave town with no deal on border, war supplemental

Talks are back on, but it's unclear how close the two parties are

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, arrives for Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s meeting with senators in the Capitol on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, arrives for Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s meeting with senators in the Capitol on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

One day after Republicans blocked the Senate from taking up a war funding package, senators resumed bipartisan talks aimed at reaching a border security compromise that’s critical to winning GOP support for Ukraine aid.

A meeting between Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Democrat Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut produced no breakthrough in the partisan standoff that has derailed a $110.5 billion package for Ukraine, Israel, the Indo-Pacific and more. But Republicans made a new offer on border policy Thursday and the bipartisan group agreed to keep talking through the weekend.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who is involved in the talks, stressed that the plan presented Thursday was not a detailed proposal and more discussion would be required before any agreement could be reached.

“We are far away from having that level of clarity on what it’s going to take to get bipartisan support,” Tillis said. “But 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.”

In a sign of the tough slog to come, Murphy suggested he did not share the GOP goal of a “dramatic reduction” in migrant crossings.

“What I want is a border where everyone … is processed and that we are able to allow in people who have legitimate claims of asylum, and that should happen at the border instead of 10 years later inside the country,” he said.

But the commitment to continue talks was itself a bit of progress after Democrats briefly walked away in anger a week ago, saying Republicans were pushing extremist policies that would effectively shut down the border.

In opening the door to new talks Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said: “It has to be in good faith. Republicans need to show they are serious about reaching a compromise, not just throwing on the floor basically Donald Trump’s border policies.”

While Schumer blamed Republicans for holding up critical aid to Ukraine, pressure may be building within the Democratic caucus for relieving the stress at the U.S. southern border that shows no sign of easing.

“Congress needs to stop pointing fingers and deliver some real solutions before things get worse,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in a letter to Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Tester, who faces a tough reelection battle next year and could be critical for Democrats to retain their Senate majority, said: “I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle that want to find real solutions, not play political games that only benefit their own personal agendas. I am asking both of you to do the same.”

During Wednesday’s unsuccessful procedural vote, Schumer changed his vote to “no,” a maneuver that enables him to swiftly call another vote on proceeding to the legislative vehicle for the supplemental if there’s enough movement.

[War supplemental stymied in Senate over border holdup]

‘Extraneous’ discussion

Republicans have said the emergency spending measure must secure the U.S. border as a condition for additional help in securing Ukraine’s from a Russian invasion.

Schumer has said fixing the border is important but “extraneous” to the aid package on the table. President Joe Biden, however, included $13.6 billion in his $106 billion emergency spending request in October to provide more personnel and other resources to process migrants at the border. Senate Democrats scaled that back to $10.7 billion in their version, while beefing up military aid to Ukraine.

Republican senators, meanwhile, urged the Biden administration to take a more active role in the talks, amid reports that White House officials are beginning to engage more forcefully.

“I think the White House, whether it’s the president or chief of staff or others that they designate are absolutely essential to move this from a normal negotiation between Republicans and Democrats in the two chambers to actually the White House stepping in and saying, ‘I made a promise to [Ukraine President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy that I’d get him support and I’m going to deliver on that promise,’” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

And Tillis called on Biden to use executive orders to implement tougher border measures that Congress could later codify.

He said his message to Biden would be: “You know damn well you have all the authority you need to achieve what Republicans would want. Send us a signal about policies we should be negotiating here based on their ability to ramp it up now. The administration could do that.”

Laura Weiss contributed to this report.

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