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

Johnson digs in against border deal to unlock Ukraine aid, defying Biden

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.), center, walks out of the West Wing with U.S. Representatives Mike McCaul (R-Texas), left, and Mike Rogers (R-Ohio) to make a statement at the White House on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.  (Samuel Corum)
By Karoun Demirjian New York Times

WASHINGTON – Speaker Mike Johnson on Wednesday threw cold water on the idea of striking an immigration deal with Democrats that could revive stalled legislation to send aid to Ukraine, hours before a meeting in which President Joe Biden planned to make a renewed push for the plan.

“I don’t think now is the time for comprehensive immigration reform because we know how complicated that is,” Johnson said Wednesday morning before an afternoon meeting at the White House. “You can’t do that quickly. I do think it’s past time to secure the border.”

Johnson said he told Biden on Thursday during a 30-minute phone call that he was dug in on the matter and would deliver the same message face to face later Wednesday. Biden has summoned Johnson and other congressional leaders as well as the top-ranking national security committee lawmakers in Congress, in an urgent bid to break a monthslong logjam over military assistance for Ukraine and the border security policies Republicans have insisted are a requirement for the aid.

“I’m going to tell the president what I’m telling all of you, what we’ve told the American people: border, border, border,” Johnson said. “We have to secure our own border before we talk about doing anything else.”

Johnson’s warnings highlighted a deep split among Republicans over how to proceed. Senate Republican leaders, who are pressing for action on legislation that would pair military assistance for Ukraine and Israel with a compromise border security plan, said Wednesday that they looked forward to voting as soon as next week.

“I think it’s time to go ahead with the supplemental, and I’m anticipating that it’ll be before us next week,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, told reporters before heading to the White House to meet with Biden.

A group of Senate Republicans and Democrats as well as Biden administration officials have made substantial progress in recent weeks toward a compromise that would clamp down on migration at the southwestern border.

Leading Senate Republicans have argued that the emerging deal – and the leverage provided by Biden’s desire to secure Ukraine aid – represents the best chance the GOP has to secure serious border policy concessions from Democrats.

“If we had a 100% Republican government – president, House, Senate – we probably would not be able to get a single Democratic vote to pass what Sen. Lankford and the administration are trying to get together on,” McConnell said, referring to James Lankford of Oklahoma, the lead Republican negotiator. “So this is a unique opportunity to accomplish something in divided government that wouldn’t be there under unified government.”

But House Republicans have stood against the emerging deal, which has infuriated the party’s hard-right base, arguing that a more severe crackdown is needed.

In yet another indication that they are in no mood to compromise, House Republican leaders pushed through a measure Wednesday denouncing what they call Biden’s “open-border policies” and calling on him to end them.

“The border is a catastrophe, and it has to be addressed,” Johnson said Wednesday. “You’re going to see House Republicans standing and fighting on that hill because it’s important for the country.”

Border negotiations in the Senate have continued despite Johnson’s resistance.

The bipartisan group of senators has agreed to measures to make it more difficult for migrants to claim asylum after crossing the border, and expanded detention and expulsion powers.

And Democrats said they were optimistic that the measure could move forward.

“I expect the meeting with President Biden will reinforce something I’ve been saying all along: It’s a matter of the highest national urgency that both parties keep working together to pass the supplemental,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

“For the first time, I think the chances of getting it done in the Senate are greater than not getting it done,” Schumer told reporters later.

But the negotiations have hit a snag over limiting parole authority, which the administration uses to allow some migrants who attempted to enter the United States illegally to remain in the country and work until their cases can be heard in immigration court. The Biden administration has signaled it is unwilling to dismantle that authority, while Republicans insist they cannot support a deal that fails to cap the number of migrants paroled into the country.

“If we don’t fix parole, there will be no deal,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters Wednesday.

Johnson suggested that a border deal, even one that met all the Republicans’ demands, might not be enough to win their support for funding Ukraine’s war effort against Russia. He insisted that the administration provide other guarantees and accountability measures.

“What is the endgame and the strategy in Ukraine? How will we have accountability for the funds?” Johnson asked. “We need to know that Ukraine will not be another Afghanistan.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.