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Congress' path forward for the border, Israel and Ukraine

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Just down the Mall, it was another heated and chaotic day on Capitol Hill. Republicans derailed a bipartisan Senate bill to reduce and manage the surge of migrants approaching the U.S.-Mexico border. Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, an independent, bashed her GOP colleagues for demanding that any bill, including funding for Ukraine, also had to include border reforms, only to reverse themselves in just 48 hours.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KYRSTEN SINEMA: Partisanship won. The Senate has failed Arizona - shameful.

PFEIFFER: NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us from the Capitol. Hi, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: That border bill vote was simply to start debate on the legislation. Why couldn't they agree to do that?

WALSH: Well, it's 2024. And really, the political noise about the border security issue really drowned out and overpowered this policy debate. But this bill was blocked because the same Republicans who insisted on changing the administration's border policies in order to agree to this money for Ukraine and Israel, reversed themselves. Sixty votes were needed to advance this bill in the Senate. It only got 49. Only four Senate Republicans agreed to advance this bill. A small group of Democrats also had issues with the bill and opposed it.

But Republicans have been pushing for four months to attach border to this foreign assistance package. But between Sunday night, when this bipartisan deal was finally released, and yesterday - basically two days - most Republicans had walked away. But before the deal was even done, Donald Trump had lobbied congressional Republicans to kill it. And that really caused most Republicans to shift. Also, House Speaker Mike Johnson dismissed the bill as dead on arrival before it was even out.

PFEIFFER: And to confirm, Republicans helped write this bill...

WALSH: Right.

PFEIFFER: ...And top Republican leadership aides were at the negotiating table.

WALSH: Right. The lead Republican negotiator, Oklahoma Senator Jim Lankford, vigorously defended the deal today on the Senate floor. He was very blunt about the political forces that were against anything that addressed the crisis at the border. Lankford revealed today that a popular commentator he didn't name threatened him about getting a deal with Democrats and described what that person told him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM LANKFORD: That told me flat out, if you try to move a bill that solves the border crisis during this presidential year, I will do whatever I can to destroy you because I do not want you to solve this during the presidential election.

PFEIFFER: And of course, the same time this gridlock is happening, record numbers of migrants continue to approach the border. The impact of that is being felt all across the country.

WALSH: Right.

PFEIFFER: Is there any chance Congress can or will do anything about that?

WALSH: No. I mean, it really doesn't look like any kind of bipartisanship's really realistic in this political year. Immigration policy has always been a thorny political issue. I covered the last serious effort at immigration reform - that was a much more comprehensive immigration bill - a decade ago, and that failed.

Trump has made it clear he wants to use this issue against President Biden. And Biden's handling of the border is really one of his weakest issues, according to the polls. But Democrats are starting to think they can flip the script on this issue of the border because Republicans blocked this bipartisan deal. I talked to Senator Gary Peters. He's the head of the Senate Democrats' campaign committee who thinks Democrats should try to go on the defense.

GARY PETERS: So they own the problem. From this point forward, congressional Republicans own this problem.

WALSH: And President Biden was making that same argument from the White House yesterday.

PFEIFFER: And so Democrats move to a Plan B. What is their plan, really?

WALSH: Senate Majority Leader moved to bring up a bill that would just approve the billions of dollars of aid to Ukraine and Israel. These are things that do have bipartisan support in the Senate. Many Republicans who oppose the border provisions said they want to move this foreign assistance package. That, too, appears to be slightly bogged down. They're going to need 60 votes to work on that, and they still don't have agreement yet on that.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thank you.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.