Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho senators help block compromise bill that links border security measures with aid to Ukraine and Israel

Members of Ukraine’s 10th Mountain Brigade fire 122mm artillery shells at Russian troops on March 2 in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.  (John Moore)

WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked legislation that combined aid to Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies with funding and policy changes intended to improve border security, rejecting a compromise bill the parties had spent months negotiating – at the behest of Republicans.

Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho voted against the package while only four of their fellow GOP senators supported the procedural vote, which needed a 60-vote majority to succeed. Both Idahoans say they still support additional U.S. aid to Ukraine, whose military is running out of munitions to fend off Russia’s invasion, but opposition to Ukraine aid from GOP hardliners and former President Donald Trump makes the path forward uncertain.

When it became clear Republicans would sink the deal, Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, released a version of the bill without the border provisions. But Crapo and other GOP senators said they wanted a chance to vote on border-related amendments to the bill, arguing that the concessions Democrats had made didn’t go far enough.

“Even though we rejected this border deal, we’re still trying to get a solution on the border,” Crapo said in a brief interview at the Capitol, adding that he supported further aid to Ukraine in principle but would only vote for it along with border measures he considers adequate.

Even if the Senate passes a bill, House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana appears unlikely to allow a vote on it, since provoking Trump’s anger could prompt the former president’s allies to oust the GOP leader, as they did to Johnson’s predecessor in October. Before the vote, Murray took to the Senate floor to accuse GOP lawmakers of caving to Trump.

“By voting it down, Republicans will be telling our allies our word cannot be trusted, telling dictators like Putin that our threats are not serious and telling the world American leadership has been hollowed out by Republican obstructionism,” she said. “And let’s be clear: They will be telling the American people they don’t want to solve the crisis at our border – they want to campaign on it.”

The legislation includes about $20 billion in border security funding and major changes to how the government handles migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally to seek asylum. It also contains roughly $60 billion in aid to Ukraine, $14 billion for Israel and $10 billion for humanitarian aid for people displaced by fighting in Ukraine, Gaza and other parts of the world, plus funds to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

In November, Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma and two other Republicans released a one-page document of changes to border and asylum policy that they demanded in exchange for backing additional aid to Ukraine. To the chagrin of many progressive Democrats, Biden agreed to many of the GOP demands as Lankford negotiated the deal with Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz.

The centerpiece of the deal is a provision that would empower the president to close the border if Border Patrol agents encounter a weekly average of at least 4,000 migrants per day, and a trigger mechanism would automatically shut down the border if that number reaches a weekly average of 5,000 encounters or 8,500 on any given day. Critics of the deal have said it would let thousands of migrants into the country, but other parts of the package are intended to detain those people and quickly process their asylum claims.

In late 2023, Border Patrol agents encountered as many as 10,000 migrants a day. Under current law, about half of those who cross the border illegally have been deported, while the rest have been allowed to stay in the United States while their asylum claims are processed. But because immigration courts and detention facilities are overwhelmed, those asylum seekers often live and work in the country for years before they have a court date.

The bill would make it harder for migrants to claim asylum, raising the standard for proving “credible fear” of persecution in their home countries and requiring them to prove that they couldn’t have simply moved within their countries to find safety. It also includes funding to hire more Border Patrol and asylum officers, improve screening for illicit drugs at the border and expand the capacity of migrant detention facilities.

But Risch and other Republicans rejected that package, saying it didn’t go far enough and prompting Lankford to accuse his party of propagating misinformation about the bill he had negotiated. In a brief interview at the Capitol on Tuesday, Risch said he believes Biden already has the authority he needs to stop people from crossing the border illegally.

“To me, it’s incredibly simple,” he said. “We have a law in America that says you cannot enter this country unless authorized to do so. If you do, it’s a criminal offense, it’s a civil offense. The president of the United States is charged with enforcing that law. The last president did. This president didn’t. The next Republican president will.”

When asked on Tuesday if he supported additional aid to Ukraine, Risch – the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has traveled to Ukraine to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other leaders in Kyiv – declined to answer, although his office later confirmed that he still supports aid to Ukraine.

“I don’t want to mix those two right now,” Risch said, referring to Ukraine aid and border policy. “I have no more news.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat who along with Risch led a congressional delegation to an international security conference in Canada focused on supporting Ukraine in November, said Wednesday that the Idahoan had told her “he’s very committed to getting aid for Ukraine.”

Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, another Democrat who made the trip to Nova Scotia with Risch and Shaheen, recalled on Tuesday the dozens of times he has “sat and listened to Republican leaders in this Senate pledge to Zelenskyy our undying support, our reliability, our partnership.”

“Look, democracy is a hard form of governing and it only works when people are willing to listen to each other, respect each other and compromise,” said Coons, adding that he and Risch will attend a security conference in Munich in mid-February.

“They’re all going to be asking us, ‘Can we count on you? Or is your democracy so broken and dysfunctional that you can’t … keep the most simple, basic commitments?’ ”

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday of his GOP counterpart’s support for Ukraine aid, “I think he would like to get it done, but he hasn’t given us too much of a path forward for getting it done.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., sent senators home on Wednesday night – saying he wanted to let Republicans “figure themselves out” – with plans to try again on Thursday. But even if a bill passes the Senate, there’s no guarantee House members will vote on it.

Rep. Adam Smith of Bellevue, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday that there’s plenty of support among House lawmakers to approve more aid to Ukraine and Israel. But the House speaker may never bring such a bill to the floor for a vote, Smith said, because “Donald Trump and his supporters are really good at intimidating Republicans.”

In September, the House voted overwhelmingly – 311-117 – to approve more aid for Ukraine, although that vote never made it to the Senate. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane was among the 101 Republicans who voted for that bill. Spokesman Kyle VonEnde confirmed Wednesday that McMorris Rodgers still supports additional aid to Ukraine, but she wants to see more oversight of how the money is spent and for the United States to define what would constitute success in the war.

The congresswoman has supported four spending packages – totaling more than $113 billion – in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. She believes that alongside any additional funding, there needs to be accountability on how the money has been spent up to this point, and where future funding will be targeted. The United States must define what success looks like and strengthen oversight of the funds already appropriated.

“I know that there are the votes in the House for the supplemental without the border. I know that is crucially important for Ukraine, and also important for Israel,” Smith said. “Obviously, our border is more important. But Ukraine is important, too, and killing Ukraine because you won’t agree to a border deal just doesn’t make sense.”

It may make sense, however, if Republicans prefer to use the border crisis to rally their voters in November, even though Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has advised Republicans that the deal Lankford negotiated offers a bigger win for conservatives than anything they could pass under a Republican president.

On Wednesday, Lankford told reporters that a prominent right-wing media figure, whom he declined to name, had threatened to do “whatever I can to destroy you” if the Oklahoma senator tried to “move a bill that solves the border crisis during this presidential year.”

Even after GOP senators rejected the bill pairing foreign aid with border security, some House Republicans continued to call for that combination – albeit with nearly all of their demands. Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho, said Wednesday he would only vote for Ukraine aid if it were packaged with the border security bill House Republicans passed in May , “or close to it.”

“That is a festering sore in the House,” Fulcher said of border security. “And if that’s not addressed in some meaningful way – not what the Senate was kicking around doing, but in some meaningful way – I’m not going to support ongoing foreign aid.”