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Senate border negotiations forge ahead despite pressure from Trump

Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Republican senators that the politics of the border have shifted, referencing former President Trump's desire to make immigration a centerpiece of his campaign.
Mariam Zuhaib
Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Republican senators that the politics of the border have shifted, referencing former President Trump's desire to make immigration a centerpiece of his campaign.

Updated January 25, 2024 at 3:52 PM ET

A bipartisan deal that would pair assistance to Ukraine and Israel with measures to improve border security is facing serious political threats as negotiators aim to finalize a deal.

The talks seemed on the verge of collapse Wednesday after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested the politics around the agreement have shifted, but negotiators have vowed to forge ahead.

Punchbowl News first reported that McConnell told Republican senators the politics "have changed" because former President Trump wants to build his reelection campaign around immigration. "We don't want to do anything to undermine him," McConnell reportedly said.

A spokesperson for the minority leader did not dispute the Punchbowl report when NPR asked for comment.

McConnell's comments deflated hopes that a deal could be made public this week. Negotiators told reporters as early as Monday that they were nearing a final agreement on outstanding issues like parole for asylum seekers.

But McConnell appeared to back away from his comments on Thursday, telling reporters he still supports the talks.

The border agreement has been explicitly tied to security funding for Israel and Ukraine and any failure could threaten chances of Congress passing that aid. President Biden agreed to couple his funding request with border security elements at the behest of Republicans, including McConnell.

Deputy White House Press Secretary Olivia Dalton told reporters Thursday that the White House remains committed to getting deal on border and national security funding.

"The president has been clear, we need action on the border," Dalton told reporters aboard Air Force One. "We've been engaging in good faith, bipartisan negotiations with both Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans to that end. And we believe that there's no reason that shouldn't continue."

Negotiators refuse to give up hope

Still, senators on both sides of the aisle insisted Thursday that the deal is not dead. Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, the lead Republican involved in the talks, said negotiations were still moving forward, and that McConnell was acknowledging the "political realities" of the situation, but not suggesting the deal be abandoned.

"We started this in October, and it's not October anymore," Lankford said. "You know, it's now January. The end of January. And we're in the middle of a presidential primary season ... that's just a reality."

Sen. Chris Murphy, the lead Democrat involved in negotiations, said he has not spoken to McConnell about his comments, but reiterated that "talks are ongoing."

"I think the Republican conference is going to make a decision in the next 24 hours as to whether they actually want to get something done or whether they want to leave the border a mess for political reasons," said Murphy, D-Conn.

Trump's influence over GOP policymaking

While text of an agreement has not yet been released, Trump spoke out against a bipartisan framework last week, writing on his social media site, Truth Social: I do not think we should do a Border Deal, at all, unless we get EVERYTHING needed to shut down the INVASION of Millions & Millions of people, many from parts unknown, into our once great, but soon to be great again, Country!"

He added that House Speaker Mike Johnson should only accept a deal that is "perfect."

Trump's comments comments were a serious blow to the talks. Significant border provisions were meant to garner Republican support for Ukraine assistance, which the party has increasingly soured on. House Republicans in particular have little appetite for more Ukraine aid, and have been insisting that the Senate take up a border bill they previously passed — without a single Democratic vote — instead of working on a bipartisan one.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who supports aid for Ukraine, stressed that Thursday his state "can't continue to absorb" the number of migrants currently crossing the border, which hit a record high of 2.5 million people last year.

"President Trump, you know, obviously he's an important voice but we have a job to do. And we intend to do it," Cornyn said. "Some people are saying, 'well you know, we can't give President Biden a win, because he desperately needs this.' But the magnitude of this problem is so great that this is not going to be all of a sudden fixed here in the next 10 months."

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Lexie Schapitl
Lexie Schapitl is an assistant producer with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces, the NPR Politics Podcast, and digital content. She also reports from the field and helps run the NPR Politics social media channels.
Eric McDaniel
Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.