Border talks come back to life with Ukraine aid on the line

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The Senate’s bipartisan border talks are back on, potentially providing a fresh path forward for President Biden’s stalled national security package.

Negotiations restarted on Thursday afternoon after Democrats previously pulled the plug believing that Republicans had barely budged from their initial demands to implement strict asylum restrictions. Two people familiar with the talks told Semafor that Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. was reviewing a new proposal from Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. but there were still significant differences for them to resolve.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz. is also involved in the talks. One of the people said the trio met at her Capitol hideaway for a little over an hour on Thursday afternoon, and the senators and their staffs intend to be in frequent contact heading into the weekend.

The Senate gang has one week left on the legislative calendar to broker an agreement before the Senate adjourns on Dec. 14, though it’s possible the Senate will stay in session until Christmas.

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The revival of the talks comes a day after President Biden signaled a fresh willingness to support stiffer border restrictions to unlock GOP support for a new round of Ukraine aid. A White House spokesperson told Semafor that the president is “open to compromise as Senate negotiators continue to work toward a bipartisan package.”

Senate Republicans have long said they won’t support more aid to Ukraine unless major changes to border enforcement policy are included in the legislation. “From what I read in the House, unless we close the border we’re not going to get the aid we desperately need for our friends in Ukraine and Israel,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told reporters.

But some Democratic senators are also pressing the White House to take action on the border. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., told Semafor he called White House officials on Thursday morning to warn the situation at the border was “untenable” after visiting the Tucson and Yuma sectors, a pair of Border Patrol hubs along the Mexican border. Biden’s national security package included more federal cash to hire asylum officers and immigration judges, along with ensuring a flow of dollars to border communities to support migrants with food and shelter.

“It’s a crisis and without some support that comes from the supplemental, there’s a lot of risks that it could get a lot worse,” Kelly told Semafor. “[Talks] need to go somewhere.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., one of several vulnerable Democrats heading into next year’s election, sent a letter to Senate leaders Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell imploring the pair to prioritize negotiations to strengthen border enforcement. “Securing the border is critical to our national security,” Tester wrote. “Congress needs to stop pointing fingers and deliver real solutions before things get worse.”