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US Congress departs without deal on Ukraine border security

Congress was departing Washington on Thursday without a deal to pass wartime support for Ukraine, but Senate negotiators and President Joe Biden’s administration were still racing to wrap up a border security compromise to unlock the stalemate before the end of the year.

The Senate planned to come back next week in hopes of passing the $110 billion package of aid for Ukraine, Israel and other national security and finalizing a deal to place new restrictions on asylum claims at the US border. But the House showed no sign of returning to push the legislation through the full Congress.

“We’re working really hard,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said at the end of the day. “It’s not easy, but we’re working hard.”

Lawmakers leaving the impasse unresolved through the holidays would mean the Biden administration would have to rely on a dwindling supply of funds for Ukraine. The wartime aid has so far been vital to Ukraine’s defending against Russia’s invasion, but an emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier Thursday recommitted to his goals in the war.

Repelling Russia has been one of Biden’s chief foreign policy goals. But the Democratic president is facing stiff opposition from Republicans in Congress — both from populist conservatives who no longer want to fund the nearly two-year-old conflict and GOP senators who have been traditional allies to Ukraine’s defense but insist that the U.S. also enact policies aimed at cutting the historic number of migrants who are arriving at the US border with Mexico.

Top administration officials, including White House chief of staff Jeff Zients and Biden’s legislative affairs director Shuwanza Goff, met with Senate negotiators Thursday evening. Zients had been meeting with Schumer and dropped by to emphasize the president’s call to find policy and funding solutions on the border, according to a White House official. And for a third day Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas holed up with negotiators at the Capitol.

“We’ll all be back tomorrow,” said one negotiator, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, as the meeting broke for the evening. “A lot to do tomorrow.”

Schumer, a Democrat, rescheduled the Senate to return to Washington on Monday to give negotiators more time to reach the framework of a deal, and he said he would push for a Senate vote on the funding package next week even if an agreement is not in place.

In an earlier speech on the Senate floor, Schumer said that the deadlock in Congress has left “Putin mocking our resolve.” He cast the decisions facing lawmakers as a potential turning point of history: “There is too much on the line for Ukraine, for America, for Western democracy, to throw in the towel right now.”

But the House ended work and departed for the holidays, with Republican Speaker Mike Johnson showing no sign he will have members return until the second week of January.

In fact, Johnson’s office sent around a clip from a Zelenskyy interview suggesting aid could wait until the new year.

Senate Republicans also expressed doubt there was time left this year to both reach an agreement and work through writing the text of legislation, with Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio saying there would be a “revolt” by Republicans if they were forced into a quick vote.

A core group of Senate negotiators and Biden administration officials were expected to work through the weekend narrowing a list of priorities aimed at curtailing the number of migrants applying for asylum at the U.S. border.

“We are making progress, I feel more confident today than I did yesterday,” Sinema, an Arizona independent who has often been central to Senate deal-making, told The Associated Press.

Faced with historic numbers of migrants at the U.S. border with Mexico, the White House has negotiated a change to the law that would allow Homeland Security officials to stop migrants from applying for asylum if the number of total crossings exceeded a certain capacity.

Negotiators have also considered several other policies that resemble those pursued under former President Donald Trump’s administration, including detaining people who claim asylum at the border and granting nationwide authority to quickly remove migrants who have been in the U.S. for less than two years.

Sinema declined to discuss details of the talks but said her aim was to craft a package that has both the policy and funding to “create an orderly, safe, secure and humane process” for seeking asylum or immigrating for “other legal reasons.”

She added that negotiators understand they will lose support from wings of both conservatives and progressives, but were aiming to pass the package in the Senate with majorities of both parties.

“There will probably be folks on the edges of the political spectrum who are not happy with a solution that secures our border, brings order and is humane,” Sinema said.

In one friction point in talks, the White House has resisted Republican demands to curtail a humanitarian parole program that has allowed tens of thousands of migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to enter the US often at ports of entry other than the border, according to several people familiar with the talks who discussed them only on the condition of anonymity.

Still, immigration advocates have been dismayed at the White House’s concessions in the talks.

Sen. Alex Padilla, the California Democrat who has spearheaded Senate resistance to the plans, said he has told Biden “to be careful because Republicans are hellbent on dragging us into harmful policy territory.”

Congress has struggled for decades to find any agreement on border and immigration policy, yet Republicans argue that the Biden administration opened the door for a policy negotiation both by including border-related funding in the national security package and openly calling for Congress to take up reforms.

But the complicated and contentious nature of the issue prompted many GOP senators to conclude that there would be no deal for Ukraine aid this year, even as they pledged to prove Putin wrong for doubting U.S. support for Ukraine.
“Sometimes democracies take a little more time, but the resolve is real,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-SD

Some Democrats fretted that leaving the funding deadlock hanging for weeks could precipitate the deal’s collapse.

“Actions speak louder than words,” said Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado.