Senators race to save faltering border-Ukraine negotiations

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Senate negotiators are scrambling to revive bipartisan border talks after the lead Democrat involved warned that talks had reached a major impasse, potentially endangering a cornerstone of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy agenda.

After Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Monday that there’s “no path” currently forward to a border deal, other senators tried to keep discussions from deteriorating further. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) moved to bat down claims that Republicans are insisting on harsh detention policies and Republicans said they expected a new exchange of offers, potentially as soon as Monday evening.

“Not dead,” a person directly involved in the negotiations said about their status.

Some senators and aides met Murphy's pessimism with surprise. The Connecticut Democrat said in an interview that in exchange for signing off on Biden's request for Ukraine aid, Republicans are insisting on policies that would “essentially close the border” and eliminate asylum for people with meritorious claims. Both of those ideas, he said, are nonstarters for Democrats.

“Right now, it seems pretty clear that we're making pretty big compromises and concessions. And Republicans aren't willing to meet us anywhere close to the middle,” said Murphy, who added that talks stalled out on Friday. He said he was open to re-engaging.

It’s a critical moment for Biden’s $106 billion national security spending pitch, whose fate currently relies on a small group of senators coming up with a border deal that can advance alongside Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan funding. Democrats have made some concessions to Republicans on areas like asylum, but GOP senators say they haven’t gone far enough and are threatening to filibuster Biden’s funding request, perhaps as soon as this week.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is angling to put the Biden proposal to a Senate vote as early as Wednesday or Thursday. He said on Monday that Democrats want a deal but won’t keep “going in circles.”

“Progress on the national security package has been on ice for weeks,” Schumer says. “Because Republicans have injected partisan and extreme immigration measures into the debate.”

Still, negotiators insist that things could be salvaged and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Republicans are "still at table." Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the lead Republican in the room, was more bullish about the state of the talks. He said Republicans have merely not yet replied to a Democratic proposal sent to them on Friday and indicated GOP senators will remain at the table.

“I wouldn’t describe it as a breakdown,” Lankford said. “We're still swapping paperwork and we're still having conversations. That doesn't feel like a breakdown to me. That feels like we're still working, just not making progress fast enough.”

Democrats previously indicated that they were willing to tighten up the standards under which migrants can claim asylum. Murphy said they’ve also had “very good discussions around” stiffening some parole policies — another potential Democratic concession that would likely anger progressives. He said the party will not vote, however, “for closing the border indiscriminately.”

Republicans have demanded Pentagon detention camps on U.S. military bases, long detentions for families with children, and “unworkable” nationwide mandatory detentions, according to a second person familiar with the negotiations, who revealed their details on condition of anonymity.

Sinema disputed that the GOP sought those changes, suggesting that leaks about requests from either side were aimed at complicating the negotiations. She also said she didn’t believe the current impasse was fatal but suggested that both parties needed to be more realistic about what can be achieved.

"Arizonans need real solutions now to our border crisis. I continue to reject the toxic partisanship that poisons results and work with both Republican and Democratic negotiators on real solutions to the crisis because now is not the time for political talking points, it’s time for action," Sinema said in a statement to POLITICO.

Even if senators were able to hammer out a deal with significant border concessions, it would still face a steep climb in the House. Republicans in that chamber, many of whom are resistant to new Ukraine aid, have demanded border policy measures that are more draconian than anything Senate Democrats would accept.

That means Democrats would have to give significant ground to pass a bill, if a vote is held at all.

“We're not going to get to the supplemental unless there's a solution” on the border, said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who worked closely with Murphy on a gun safety deal last year. “This is part of a larger package. And if they want the larger package, then they're going to have to show some flexibility.”

Lankford reiterated that if Schumer held a vote on the foreign aid request without a border deal attached, he would back a filibuster to block it. That’s currently the most likely scenario without an agreement this week, as several other Republicans indicate that their party has the requisite 41 votes to tank Biden's request.

But Lankford challenged Murphy’s assertion that Republicans are demanding policies that would result in a border “shutdown.” He said that the GOP simply insists on action to address the persistently high number of migrants crossing into the country.

“We're not asking for some sort of total shutdown of the border in the sense that no one can cross it anytime, anyplace,” he said. “We're asking for an orderly process. Right now, it's total chaos.”

The Biden administration, meanwhile, warned congressional leaders Monday that time is running out for Ukraine.

In letters to party leaders in the House and Senate, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young said that inaction before the end of the year on a new round of funding threatens to "kneecap Ukraine on the battlefield."

"I want to be clear: Without congressional action, by the end of the year we will run out of resources to procure more weapons and equipment for Ukraine and to provide equipment from U.S. military stocks," she wrote. "There is no magical pot of funding available to meet this moment. We are out of money — and nearly out of time."

Ursula Perano contributed to this report.