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Supplemental vote expected next week, but path to passage fraught

Senate Republicans may resist cutting debate short as some get "cold feet" on border provisions

Texas Sen. John Cornyn warned Democrats not to "jam" the supplemental bill through the Senate.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn warned Democrats not to "jam" the supplemental bill through the Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate plans to start debating next week a defense supplemental combined with immigration policy changes, but the measure’s path ahead is still littered with stumbling blocks.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said the text will be released as early as Friday and no later than Sunday. He said he will file cloture on the motion to proceed to the supplemental bill on Feb. 5, setting up the first procedural vote no later than Feb. 7.

Plenty of Senate Republicans may resist cutting the debate short, as many of them want more time to air their concerns and to offer and discuss amendments.

“If Schumer tries to jam this in next week, though, I think that makes things a lot more complicated,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters Thursday. “And I think it creates a lot more jeopardy for the final product.”

‘Cold feet’

Critics of the measure, mainly Republicans, seem to be finding new reasons every week — and sometimes every hour — to oppose the draft measure, based on what Senate negotiators said were false depictions of its contents. Although the bill has not been finalized, the broad outlines have been shared privately among key lawmakers for many days and have now been publicly discussed by top negotiators.

The critics’ ostensible reasons to oppose the deal appear to be growing, not shrinking.

Republicans insisted a few months ago that changes to border laws must be part of the supplemental, but now more and more of them are saying that changing the law does not matter if the president will not enforce it.

“The reality of this is that the same people that aren’t enforcing current law will then be given new laws, and I’m a little skeptical whether they will enforce those laws,” Cornyn said. “We said we wanted the border bill, and now we’re coming up with a compromise, and I think people are getting cold feet on the border provisions.”

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., addressing reporters Thursday, said Republicans are now “against the legislative effort that they themselves were apparently for months ago.”

‘Factually false’

Some of those speaking out against the emerging border deal, including Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., have mischaracterized elements of the draft package, according to Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., and James Lankford, R-Okla, two of the top negotiators involved.

The biggest inaccuracy, they said, has been the allegation — reiterated several times this week by Johnson and others — that the draft measure would allow up to 5,000 people a day into the country before tough restrictions kick in.

That is the opposite of the truth, they said, adding that this fact has been conveyed to Johnson’s staff.

“Factually false,” Sinema said of the claim on Wednesday.

The rules for asylum and parole would be tighter for all people seeking to enter the United States, whether at official points of entry or not, Sinema and Lankford said. And the figure of 5,000 migrants a day is actually the number after which the border would effectively be closed for most migrants, they said.

“Current practice is: when we’re overwhelmed at the border, everybody just gets released in” to the country, Lankford told reporters Thursday. The proposed legislation, he said, “changes that to: when we’re overwhelmed at the border, everybody gets returned. It is literally a 180 of what everyone’s describing.”

Sinema described the draft proposal as: “When the system is overwhelmed, we can shut it down.”

Money worries

On Thursday, Democrats’ top Senate negotiator, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said Republican senators are raising new concerns all the time, the latest being about the cost of the package.

“We’re having trouble getting Republicans to understand that if you want to support this agreement, you have to support the money necessary to implement it,” Murphy told reporters.

Even when lawmakers are making constructive efforts to write the best possible bill, as opposed to looking for reasons to shoot it down, new issues arise regularly, especially when the topic, immigration, is so complicated, several senators noted.

Top GOP appropriator Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who is reviewing the measure’s funding implications, expressed optimism that text will be available in the coming days but acknowledged that new challenges keep sprouting up.

“We seem to get issues that I think are settled, and then we find that there are still some questions or disagreements,” Collins said.

Both harder and easier

Lankford was asked Thursday if the upcoming release of the legislation’s text would make the job of selling it easier.

Once text is available, it will clear up misconceptions, he said. But it will also unleash new complications.

Some lawmakers, he said, will have legitimate concerns about the bill. Compromises by their nature make each side a little unhappy, he said, and textual tweaks are, in fact, important.

But some lawmakers are looking for reasons, accurate or not, to torpedo the measure, he suggested, and disclosure of the text will not make them change course.

“I’m not confident anyone who’s been attacking it on the 5,000 [migrants issue] will come out and speak to you all and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong,’” he said. “That’s not going to happen. None of those folks are going to look at [the text] and then come to the press and apologize. They’re going to find something different to say: ‘Okay, well, that wasn’t actually true, but I found a new thing in the actual bill text and I don’t like that.’”

Politics

Former President Donald Trump, who exerts outsize influence on GOP voters, has stepped up pressure on lawmakers to oppose any immigration measure that is not “perfect,” as he puts it — a critique levied prior to the bill’s release and that allows no space for considering the bill’s actual contents.

Republicans are caught in a fierce internal debate, Murphy said, “about whether they want to close the deal because of the pressure they’re getting from Donald Trump.”

Cornyn told reporters it “makes no sense” to him why some of his colleagues have criticized the border compromise before seeing the legislative text.

“This is just a highly fraught topic that we almost never fail to fail to address,” Cornyn said.

There is no deadline to finish the bill but the exigencies of war-torn Ukraine and the swelling number of migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border are exerting pressure on most lawmakers to act.

Still, time on the Senate calendar is limited.

The Senate is scheduled to be out Feb. 12-23. If the House impeaches Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas as soon as next week, it will soon be on the Senate’s calendar. A $79 billion family and business tax break bill (HR 7024) passed the House Wednesday and now awaits Senate action. And then, by early March, Congress has to pass fiscal 2024 appropriations bills or clear another stopgap spending bill.

Supporting America’s friends overseas and bolstering the U.S. southern border are “time-sensitive challenges,” Schumer said on the floor Thursday.

Despite the months it has taken to write the border and defense supplemental and amid growing signs of GOP resistance, Sinema expressed optimism Thursday that the measure will become law.

“I feel like we are going to get this done,” she said.

David Lerman and Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.

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