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No deal yet, but border negotiators report progress

Even if a bargain is struck, Congress may have an attendance problem next week as the holidays beckon

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and President Joe Biden hold a news conference in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building Tuesday after Zelenskyy met with congressional leaders to make an in-person case for continued military aid.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and President Joe Biden hold a news conference in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building Tuesday after Zelenskyy met with congressional leaders to make an in-person case for continued military aid. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Top Senate and Biden administration officials met Tuesday with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in hopes of reaching an elusive deal on border security measures that could unlock support for aid to Ukraine and Israel.

Senators emerged from the nearly two-hour session claiming progress toward a potential compromise, while declining to discuss details. The relatively upbeat tone of lawmakers, after weeks of gridlock, underscored their desire to complete a deal and pass an aid package before leaving for the holiday recess.

“If we have a chance to get this done before Christmas, let’s get it done before Christmas,” said Connecticut Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, the lead Democratic negotiator for the Senate. “We have a really good representative group, a group that can land this deal if everybody’s ready to close.”

Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, another meeting participant who often declines to talk to reporters, said Tuesday: “We’re making progress. We had a good meeting this evening.”

Other attendees included aides to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as well as White House officials.

Schumer announced plans for the meeting just a few hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made an encore visit to the Capitol and the White House in a plea for more aid to defend his country from Russian attacks.

The session also signaled a stepped-up involvement by the administration after talks among senators floundered for days. Senate Democrats introduced a $110.5 billion supplemental spending measure for Ukraine, Israel, Indo-Pacific allies as well as for southern border management, though it wasn’t accompanied by policy changes to restrict the flow of migrants as Republicans are seeking.

“My team is working with Senate Democrats and Republicans to try to find a bipartisan compromise, both in terms of changes in policy and provide the resources we need to secure the border,” President Joe Biden said at a joint press conference with Zelenskyy at the White House. “Holding Ukraine funding hostage in an attempt to force through an extreme Republican partisan agenda on the border is not how it works. We need real solutions.”

The top Senate Republican negotiator, Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, could not be reached after the meeting. But he and other Republicans have said they need to see tight restrictions at the southern border as a condition for supporting Ukraine aid.

In a potential sign of compromise, White House officials suggested to lawmakers they were willing to consider a new authority to expel migrants without asylum screenings, and a dramatic expansion of detention and deportations, CBS News reported Tuesday.

White House spokesperson Angelo Fernandez Hernandez offered a qualified denial, saying the administration “has not signed off on any particular policy proposals or final agreements.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., left, and Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., attend a menorah lighting to celebrate Hanukkah in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

But even if a deal can be reached, passage in both chambers was hardly assured. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have been warning Biden and top Democrats this week that agreeing to GOP demands for more restrictive border policies could cost their votes on a war funding package.

Still another challenge for leaders would be to keep Congress in session for perhaps an extra week to get a deal done and a bill passed. Both chambers are currently scheduled to leave town for the year by Friday — a timeline that both parties concede is likely too short to reach a border deal, draft the legislative language and pass it in both chambers.

“Sen. Schumer’s biggest challenge right now is going to be how to keep the United States Senate here until Christmas,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. “I believe it’s very possible to get there in the next two weeks. But we’re not going to get there doing what we’re doing right now,” he said before the border meeting Tuesday.

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., said on the Hugh Hewitt Show he saw no reason “to have everybody sitting here though Christmas twiddling their thumbs.”

Schumer said he called Johnson Monday night and urged him “to keep the House in session to give a supplemental a chance to come together.”

“If Republicans are serious about getting something done at the border, then why are so many of them in a hurry to leave for the winter break?” Schumer said at his weekly news conference. “Democrats are still trying. We’ll continue to work with Republicans in the coming days in good faith.”

Herb Jackson contributed to this report.

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