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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Crunch time for Congress as aid to Ukraine and Israel depends on border deal

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, speaks during a news conference at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia’s capital on Nov. 18, flanked by Sens. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., left, and Chris Coons, D-Del.  (Orion Donovan Smith/The Spokesman-Review)

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia – When lawmakers return to the Capitol this week from their Thanksgiving break, the prospects for sending further aid to U.S. allies in Ukraine and Israel will depend on Congress solving an international crisis much closer to home – on the United States’ southern border.

That was the message delivered by both Democratic and Republican senators who made the trek to Halifax, Nova Scotia, over the weekend before Thanksgiving for a gathering of diplomats, military officers and other representatives from more than 60 countries. In a news conference on Nov. 18, members of a congressional delegation co-led by Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said they had told U.S. allies the three issues would be linked in legislation.

“We want to get to the point where we are funding Ukraine, funding Israel, funding the challenges in the western Pacific,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. “But also recognizing that in our own country, we’ve got real challenges on our southern border that have to be addressed.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who led the delegation with Risch, noted that support for Ukraine had been “the hot topic on the agenda” in Halifax – along with the Israel-Hamas war – and pledged to craft legislation “that provides aid to Ukraine, to Israel, on the Indo-Pacific and hopefully on the border.”

“We have a lot of work to do, but we have already started working on this package,” Shaheen said, adding that negotiations would continue after Thanksgiving and that it is “important that we reassure our allies around the world that this is a commitment that we have in the United States.”

Despite growing concern over the Palestinian civilians killed in Israel’s retaliatory strikes on the Gaza Strip, support for approving more aid to Israel remains strong among both Democrats and Republicans. But with waning support for Ukraine among Republicans and many Democrats reluctant to tighten border security or reform asylum policies that have contributed to a surge in illegal border crossings, a complex package of legislation may be the only way for Congress to act.

Congress has failed for decades to overhaul U.S. immigration policy, even as both parties agree the system is broken. The details of a potential deal are unclear, as many Democrats have staunchly opposed Republican proposals to change the standard by which asylum seekers are judged to have “credible fear” of harm if they aren’t allowed to remain in the United States.

With just three legislative weeks scheduled before the end of the year, and with a volatile House GOP majority led by newly elected Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., negotiators have little margin for error. After a handful of Republican hardliners ousted the previous speaker and the party took three weeks to choose a new leader, conditions are less than ideal for complex negotiations.

Asked during the news conference about the message the recent House dysfunction sends to America’s allies, Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., said other democratic nations understand that U.S. politics and policymaking are messy.

“We have those debates in the open, and that creates strength and resiliency that, frankly, our adversaries lack,” Crow said, adding that U.S. allies “share our systems and our values and our beliefs, and they understand the process that we’re going through.”

Risch echoed that idea, pointing out that the U.S. delegation had met with lawmakers in other countries who are facing similar skepticism from their constituents about the cost of backing Ukraine. In 2022 alone, Congress approved $113 billion in spending related to the war, including aid to other U.S. allies in the region, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a group that advocates for reducing the nation’s deficit.

The United States has sent roughly $44 billion in military aid to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February 2022, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. While that represents by far the biggest source of military support, the European Union has provided far more financial assistance to Ukraine – more than $77 billion – according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a German research institute.

Biden asked Congress in October to pass a supplemental spending bill with about $105 billion in funding, including $61 billion for Ukraine, $14.3 billion for Israel and $9.1 billion for humanitarian assistance – some of which would go to Palestinians who have been displaced and wounded by Israel’s counterattack. He reiterated that call in an op-ed in the Washington Post on Nov. 18, arguing that “the world faces an inflection point” where the choices Congress makes will shape the future.

Many Republicans seem to agree with Biden and want to continue supporting Ukraine and Israel, but they also see an opportunity to use their leverage to change immigration and border policies.

Publicly, Republicans have demanded that Biden and the Democratic-majority Senate support the Secure the Border Act, a bill the House passed in May to make major changes to U.S. immigration laws. The bill would increase spending on border enforcement, keep more immigrants detained while defunding alternatives to detention, restrict eligibility for asylum and resume construction of the border wall that has become emblematic of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policy.

Before House Republicans passed the bill, the Biden administration issued a statement supporting “productive efforts” at immigration reform but saying the GOP bill “makes elements of our immigration system worse.”

In early November, several caucuses representing Black, Hispanic, Asian and progressive lawmakers released a joint statement opposing any change to immigration or border policies through a supplemental funding bill, accusing Republicans of trying to “exploit two foreign wars” to force their proposals into law.

“We have been trying their enforcement-only strategy for thirty years, and the results are plain for everyone,” the groups wrote. “We can only solve the complex issue of immigration by addressing it holistically and in a bipartisan manner that deals with our economic, humanitarian, and security needs.”

One enforcement measure included in the GOP bill that hasn’t been widely implemented before is mandating E-Verify, an electronic system to check the legal status of workers. E-Verify began as a pilot program in 1996 and has existed in its current form since 2007, but employers have resisted efforts to require its use because they know the U.S. economy – especially the agriculture sector – relies on millions of unauthorized immigrant workers.

Under a Democratic majority in 2021, the House passed a bipartisan bill championed by GOP Reps. Dan Newhouse, of Sunnyside, and Mike Simpson, of Idaho Falls, that would mandate E-Verify for farmworkers while giving those without work authorization a chance to earn it. Sen. Mike Crapo, of Idaho, was the chief Republican negotiator in an effort to get that bill through the Senate in late 2022, but those talks fell short of reaching a deal.

While Biden’s supplemental funding request includes $6.4 billion to improve border security, it is unclear what border policy changes the White House would support. As usual, any deal would depend on moderates from both parties coming together for a compromise that upsets those farther to the right and left.

The gun safety law Congress passed in June 2022 may provide a blueprint for such a deal on immigration policy. That bill – prompted by mass shootings at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y. – made only modest changes to restrict gun ownership by people shown to be dangerous, but it was nevertheless the first significant gun legislation Congress had passed in nearly 30 years.

As Ukrainians face dwindling resources entering a second winter of war and the Israelis and Palestinians await renewed fighting after a temporary pause and prisoner exchange, Congress may return to the Capitol this week with enough pressure to act.