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A border deal to nowhere? House GOP ready to reject Senate compromise on immigration

The dome of the US Capitol is reflected in a window on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on April 20, 2023.Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters

A trio of senators have spent weeks laboring to cut a complex immigration deal with the Biden administration – all in an effort to curtail the surge of migrants at the southern border while easing passage for aid to Ukraine and Israel.

But a growing number of House Republicans are issuing a blunt warning: A Senate compromise stands virtually no chance of passing their chamber.

The warning underscores the grim prospects of seeing a narrowly divided Congress come together on a hot-button issue like immigration, which Republicans in particular have made central to their campaigns for the White House and control of both chambers.

In interviews , a wide-range of House Republicans said that they would only accept a border deal that resembles the hardline immigration bill that passed their chamber last year – known as HR 2 – even though Senate Democrats and the White House strongly oppose that plan and call it a non-starter.

And some Republicans were even more direct, suggesting that any deal should be rejected if it could bolster President Joe Biden’s standing ahead of November.

“Let me tell you, I’m not willing to do too damn much right now to help a Democrat and to help Joe Biden’s approval rating,” Rep. Troy Nehls, a Texas Republican. “I will not help the Democrats try to improve this man’s dismal approval ratings. I’m not going to do it. Why would I? Chuck Schumer has had HR 2 on his desk since July. And he did nothing with it.”

Even some House Republicans in key swing districts have signaled they’re prepared to reject a Senate deal if it doesn’t go far enough, a sign the issue could be a potent campaign issue in November.

“We need to do as close to HR 2 as possible,” Rep. Nick LaLota of New York, who represents a Biden-won district. He added that the package under discussion in the Senate “was too weak” based on a briefing he received before Christmas.

Others said that any bill produced in the Senate would need to be changed by the GOP-led House, meaning such a plan would move further to the right and could upset the delicate balance to win support from Democrats.

“I can’t see where a House would automatically accept a Senate version when we’ve passed our own bill, HR 2,” said GOP Rep. Tony Gonzales, whose Texas district encompasses the border.

And other GOP lawmakers contend that it’s a mistake for Democrats and the White House to only negotiate a border deal with Senate Republicans, when House GOP buy-in will be necessary in order for any legislation to actually become law.

“The House is going to need to have its input into the process. It makes more sense to include the House before you reach some agreement,” said Rep. Ben Cline of Virginia, a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus.

“We need policy reforms along the lines of HR 2,” Cline said. “And that is a pretty important goal for me and for many of my colleagues.”

If the Senate can produce a deal, the spotlight will shift to House Speaker Mike Johnson, who has called for Senate passage of HR 2 and said that tough new border measures must be approved before greenlighting more aid to Ukraine.

If Johnson deviates from that position, he’s bound to face severe blowback from his right flank. But if he tries to shift any Senate compromise further to the right, it could torpedo chances of making a law and threaten the future of Ukraine and Israel aid in the process.

“I’m glad Speaker Johnson has to date maintained an ‘HR2 or bust’ posture,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican who led the charge to oust former Rep. Kevin McCarthy from the speakership.

And Gaetz said that fellow conservatives were not going to put much stock into whatever the Senate produces.

“House conservatives are unlikely to place much hope in the work product being developed by the vestiges of the ‘gang of eight,’” Gaetz said, a reference to a group of bipartisan senators who crafted the last bipartisan immigration bill in 2013.

But unlike 2013, the current deal under discussion in the Senate doesn’t offer a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants – nor is it considered comprehensive. Instead, the Senate talks have focused on immigration restrictions pushed by Republicans, namely on asylum laws, changes to parole policies and the authority the administration can use to expel migrants or shut the border down when migration spikes.

But in 2013, the Democratic-led Senate passed the comprehensive immigration bill with 68 votes – only to see it ignored by the GOP-led House.

Now any Senate deal – being negotiated by Republican James Lankford of Oklahoma, Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent – is bound to fall short of HR 2.

Plus, the senators have been working with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who is now the subject of impeachment proceedings led by House Republicans looking to charge him with high crimes and misdemeanors over the migrant crisis.

LaLota — one of several vulnerable Republicans who joined a large House GOP delegation at the southern border on Wednesday — said he backs impeaching Mayorkas over his handling of the migrant crisis, and believes there’s growing support even among the party’s moderates for the idea.

“Unequivocally, he’s the worst Cabinet secretary in our nation’s history,” said LaLota, who serves on the Homeland Security Committee.

Mayorkas’ role in the Senate border talks – which DHS said was to provide technical assistance – has already generated deep skepticism among House Republicans.

“It needs to be a clean bill loaded towards securing the border – not facilitating illegals into the country,” said Rep. Tim Burchett, a Tennessee Republican. “We need a plan for what we will do with the 8 million that have come in the last three years.”

The House’s immigration bill, which passed in May, would require the Department of Homeland Security to renew construction of the border wall. It also would bolster punishment for immigrants who overstayed visas in the US, raise the bar on who is eligible for asylum and give DHS far more authority to turn away migrants at the border.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, speaking to reporters Wednesday, warned Johnson not to stick to HR 2 and seek bipartisan consensus instead.

“When the House clings to HR 2 as the only solution … we’re not going to get a deal,” Schumer said.

But the New York Democrat added: “I think if the Senate gets something done in a bipartisan way, it will put enormous pressure on the House to get something done as well and not just to let these hard-right people get up and say, the 30 of them, to dictate how the whole country should work. Because what they believe is clearly in the minority of the Republican Party and our country.”

Republicans, however, say it’s Schumer who has waited too long.

“And just now, the Democrat-controlled Senate is starting to realize they must do something during an election year to curb this crisis?” asked Rep. Mark Alford, a Missouri Republican. “We will accept nothing less than securing the border.”

Adding to the challenges are the growing number of hardline Republicans — including Gaetz, Reps. Chip Roy of Texas and Eric Burlison of Missouri — who are calling to shut down the government if their border security demands aren’t met, foreshadowing how challenging it will be to reach a bipartisan agreement on both the border and government funding.

“We must make funding for federal government operations contingent on the President signing H.R.2, or its functional equivalent, into law and stopping the flow across our border (with demonstrable near-zero results),” Roy wrote in a letter to his colleagues.

Burlison echoed a similar sentiment. “My constituents are with me; either we secure the border and stop the flow of illegal aliens into the country, or we shut down the government,”.

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