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Senate conservatives Tuesday vented their frustrations with Senate GOP leaders over an emerging border security deal that is slated to come to the Senate floor in the next few weeks, warning that an agreement with President Biden may wind up being worse than doing nothing at all.
Republicans including Sens. Mike Lee (Utah), Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) complained about being left in the dark about key details and warned that the deal could hurt Republicans’ chances of keeping control of the House in the 2024 election, according to senators present at a lunch meeting where the issue was discussed.
Senators said their colleagues were close to shouting at each other as tempers flared during the contentious discussion.
“Several points of view came out … at decibel levels a little higher than normal,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) quipped about the heated debate over the expected deal on Ukraine funding and border security.
“I think it’s because it’s taken so long, and now there’s talk about maybe getting something to the floor and voting on it in a day or two. I think that would cause a real uproar,” Braun said. “It’s going to be a large, complicated bill to where you don’t have adequate amount of time to pour through it properly.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said the deep divisions within the Senate GOP conference were laid bare at the Tuesday lunch.
“The caucus is very much split on sending more money to Ukraine but also to the border aspect to it,” he said.
Lee, the chairman of the Senate Steering Committee, said frustration boiled over because some GOP senators feel they are being “set up” by Senate leaders who plan to rush a deal on Ukraine funding and border security to the floor before the Presidents’ Day recess.
Lee argued at Tuesday’s lunch that senators need to have at least three weeks to review the complicated legislation, and a chance to amend it before a final vote — and that Republicans should block it unless leaders agree.
“We’ve been through these things so many times where we’re told, ‘Oh, there’s not a deal yet, not a deal, not a deal.’ All of a sudden: ‘Oh, there’s [a] deal.’ And then we are given the equivalent of a snap election, like a snap vote, without really any opportunity to read it and no opportunity to amend it,” Lee said.
“And we’ll be told, ‘Oh, oh, that was Schumer’s decision.’ No it’s not,” he added, referring to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Lee and other conservative Republicans are bristling over the secretive nature of the talks and alarmed by what details have trickled out.
He said almost the entire conference except for Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the lead GOP negotiator, has been shut out of the talks and will likely be forced to vote on the proposal without fully understanding how it works.
“What we don’t want is to receive bill text and then be asked to vote on it the next day or the next day after that or a very short period of time,” Lee said after the meeting.
He argued that when the Senate tackled immigration reform in 2013, the Senate Judiciary Committee spent “weeks” marking up legislation in public session, giving senators plenty of time to digest the details.
This time Senate leaders are skipping the committee process altogether.
“We are by any definition of that word being shut out. I don’t understand, I genuinely don’t understand — I have great respect for James Lankford — but I literally don’t understand why this makes sense … to have one person from the conference who has access to everything they’re negotiating, everything they’re discussing, and the rest of us are shut out,” Lee exclaimed.
“What little we do know about we have concerns with,” he lamented. “There are a bunch of things.”
Lee zeroed in on a proposal to give Biden and future presidents enhanced authority to expel migrants from the country that would kick in only after 5,000 daily migrant encounters.
Other conservative lawmakers are balking at that element of the emerging deal.
Paul, who says he will vote against sending more money to Ukraine, said allowing 5,000 migrants into the country on a daily basis before giving the president authority similar to what former President Trump had under Title 42 to deport them without going through the asylum process is unacceptable.
“Many people feel that letting 5,000 in a day before you get aggressive — that would be 1.8 million [people] a year — that that’s an unacceptable baseline. It would be twice what the baseline was under [former President Obama],” he said.
Johnson said the proposal set to emerge from the Senate negotiation could make the migrant crisis worse.
“First, do no harm,” Johnson said. “You got a 5,000-person threshold and then you automatically shut down the border. How do you do that?”
He said that reform could “normalize” the flow of 4,000 to 5,000 migrants a day into the country across the southern border.
“It could be used in court challenges to a president who is serious about securing the border,” Johnson warned, predicting that a future lawsuit could argue that even a Republican president wouldn’t have the authority to deport migrants before going through the asylum process until the flow across the border exceeds 4,000 or 5,000 people on a daily basis.
“Prove to me this is actually better than doing nothing,” he said.
Cruz questioned whether the Senate border bill could even pass the House and warned that it would likely become a political liability for House Republicans, who are battling to keep their majority.
One GOP senator who attended the lunch said Cruz’s “concern is we’re giving a black eye to House Republicans when they don’t need a black eye.”
“He wants to make sure the dialogue with the House gives us some indication that this would [be] handing them a life preserver and not handing them the cement block that sinks them,” the lawmaker said.
GOP senators who share Cruz’s concerns about the political fallout in the House worry that House Republicans would suffer a black eye if they get blamed for sinking a bill to fund the war in Ukraine and the defense of Israel and Taiwan.
Alternatively, House Republicans could face a backlash from GOP voters if they vote for a border security bill that is viewed as failing to solve the migrant problem or making it worse.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) admitted last week that he isn’t sure what Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) would do with a Senate-passed bill to fund the war in Ukraine and secure the border.
Braun on Tuesday said whatever the Senate passes “would be shy of what the House would think is reasonable.”
“I think this is a tricky dynamic to get something that would come out of the Senate that would end up being politically palatable to the House and Johnson’s job,” he said, alluding to the threat the Speaker faces from House conservatives who could force a vote to oust him from his job.