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Senators look ready to leave town as border talks inch along

Republicans say even if a deal is reached, there's not enough time before the House recesses for the year

Activists attend a news conference with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
Activists attend a news conference with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate appeared to be on the verge of going home for the holidays without passing an emergency war funding package, as Republicans warned more time is required to reach a bipartisan compromise on border restrictions and draft the complex legislation needed to implement it.

Negotiators from both parties said Wednesday that a White House proposal to curb the flow of migrants at the southern border laid the groundwork for a potential deal that would unlock GOP support for a new round of aid to Ukraine as it seeks to repel a Russian invasion.

But the 11th-hour proposal left Democrats pleading for Republicans to cut short the winter break and stay in town next week to get a supplemental spending bill passed.

“Crying fire about the border one minute, then saying we should go home the next is the definition of unserious,” said Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “If Republicans are serious about getting something done on the border, why are so many in a hurry to leave?”

But without a deal in hand — and considerable doubt about when or even whether one would be reached — many Senate Republicans said they saw little point in hanging around. The House is scheduled to recess for the year starting Thursday.

“The deal has not come together,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican. “And even if the Senate could execute it and get it done…the House is gone, so you got something sitting out there for the next few weeks now…. I don’t know that rushing something right now helps us get there for the holidays.”

Thune and other Republicans, however, acknowledged the Biden administration made potentially significant concessions on border policy to reach a bipartisan compromise.

The proposal, which senators said has not been put to paper, called for giving the administration expanded authority to expel migrants, similar to the so-called Title 42 public health order issued during the COVID-19 pandemic. That policy allowed for deportation without the right to seek asylum on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.

The White House plan also is said to include significant detention and deportation measures.

“It’s not a detailed proposal, but it actually does define some of the contours that I think could dramatically reduce future flows” of migrants, said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

But Tillis said a key stumbling block could be settling on a “triggering mechanism” for any newly proposed detention and deportation authorities. While about 11,000 migrants cross the border daily, he said, “I for one think it should be something south of 3,000.” Other Republicans said even 3,000 would be too high.

“It’s time we start having those discussions and I also think we should stay here until we either reach an agreement or agree that we can’t,” Tillis said.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, disagreed, saying he saw no point in the Senate passing a bill that the House wouldn’t take up until January. In that case, he said, “it’ll be a piñata out there that people will take potshots at for the next couple of weeks.”

‘Do not take the bait’

Democrats likewise offered mixed reactions to the White House proposal. While some saw the plan as a sign of progress, others pushed back.

In a show of opposition Wednesday, members of the 42-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus held a news conference to call on the Biden administration to reject GOP demands for tougher border control measures.

“Republicans are pitting vulnerable groups against each other to strong-arm policies that will exacerbate chaos at the southern border,” said Caucus Chair Nanette Barragán, D-Calif. “We are urging the Biden administration to say no. Do not take the bait.”

Barragan also criticized congressional leaders for holding border policy negotiations without Latino representation.

“These negotiations are taking place without a single Latino at the table, without a single CHC member at the table, and not even consultation or engagement with our Latino lawmakers,” she said.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters Wednesday he was troubled by the prospect of border control measures that would divide the Democratic caucus.

“I think it’s inevitable if we change policy at the border there are going to be critics on the Democratic side,” Durbin said. “That’s part of it. But I think the president realizes that a bipartisan approach to this is the only thing that has a chance to pass with a Republican-controlled House.”

Republicans have also called on President Joe Biden to participate in the negotiations directly, saying the administration waited too long to engage. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby pushed back on that criticism at a White House briefing Wednesday.

“Our team is staying very, very engaged with members of Congress, both sides of the aisle, as they continue to pursue these negotiations, and we’ll see where it goes,” Kirby said. “The president is working this very hard.”

And even as he urged Republicans to stay in town, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., the lead Senate Democratic negotiator, acknowledged that brokering a border policy was bound to be time-consuming.

“There’s a package that’s way too hot for Democrats,” he said. “There’s a package that’s too weak for Republicans. And this is the reason why we haven’t done immigration reform in a long, long time.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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