White House and Senate negotiators race to reach a border deal, with Ukraine aid on the line

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CNN
 — 

Democrats and Republicans are urgently trying to reach an agreement on border policy changes before Senators leave town for the holidays, but several congressional aides are skeptical a deal can be reached as sizeable differences remain.

President Joe Biden has repeatedly called on Congress to pass his national security supplemental request, which includes billions in funding for Ukraine, Israel, and border security, among other priorities. He’s warned that the funds are imperative for Ukraine, which the US has pledged to support in its war against Russia, and more broadly, for US national security.

But still, the package — introduced in October — remains stalled.

For weeks, negotiators on both sides of the aisles have wrestled over tying tighter immigration restrictions to supplemental funding for Ukraine and Israel. Republicans insist there needs to a change on the US southern border, where migrant surges have strained federal resources, to move forward with funding for Ukraine.

Republicans, said Sen. Lindsey Graham during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, “feel that we’re being jammed. We’re not anywhere close to a deal. It’ll go into next year.”

If Congress leaves town for the holidays without reaching a deal, the White House will have to make tough choices about supplying allies such as Ukraine at the potential expense of US military readiness. The supplemental request also includes $14 billion for border security.

Over the weekend, senior White House officials, including White House chief of staff Jeff Zients, called Republican and Democratic lawmakers to try to reach a consensus on border policy changes, two sources familiar with the discussions told CNN.

But potential changes to tighten asylum, among other stricter immigration measures, are a hard sell with Democrats, who are concerned the White House is embracing Trump-era immigration policies.

On Saturday, Zients held a call with some members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has raised alarm over the direction of border talks, the source said. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was also on the call.

Another source said key sticking points remain as negotiators try to reach an agreement. They include metrics to trigger the expulsion of migrants at the US-Mexico border — effectively barring migrants from seeking asylum at the border; curbing the use of parole, which allows migrants to temporarily live in the US on a case-by-case basis; and mandatory detention, the source said.

Other proposals include raising the credible fear standard for asylum seekers and expanding the use of a fast-track deportation procedure.

The source said that Republicans have also showed renewed interest in a safe-third country agreement, which would bar migrants from seeking asylum in the US if they passed through other countries before arriving at the US border.

For Biden, the politics of the moment are complicated. While losing support from the Democratic base could cost him at the polls next November, the perception of doing nothing on border security could have broad and lasting implications as well.

Migrant apprehensions on the US-Mexico border have reached record highs over the course of Biden’s presidency. While Biden officials have stressed that the arrests reflect of record migration in the Western hemisphere, the issue is certain to be a liability in the 2024 presidential election as Republicans point the finger at the president’s immigration policies.

Republicans and Democrats have been at an impasse for decades over immigration. But the contours of a border agreement today are far more narrow than past negotiations when more funding for border security was often paired with the legalization of immigrants who had already been living in the US illegally.

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said Sunday he is “very encouraged” by the status of the talks.

“I’ve been communicating with the negotiators, my colleagues and friends on the Democrat and Republican side, also with the White House too, and I’m very encouraged. I’m very optimistic they’re moving in a very positive way,” Manchin told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”

“I know the House has been resistant, but I can assure you the House will not get anything accomplished unless they start working together in a bipartisan way on these very, very troubling and challenging pieces of legislation,” Manchin said.

This story and headline have been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.

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