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Congress devolves into chaos over border and national security funding

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., plans to bring up a stand-alone bill with aid to Israel after rejecting a bipartisan senate border deal.
Jose Luis Magana
House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., plans to bring up a stand-alone bill with aid to Israel after rejecting a bipartisan senate border deal.

Updated February 6, 2024 at 7:41 PM ET

After months of stalling an international aid package for Ukraine and Israel in favor of tougher border policy, top Republicans are calling for a standalone international aid package because they now oppose the addition of stricter border policy they demanded.

A bipartisan Senate package that paired border security measures with assistance to Israel and Ukraine appeared all but dead Tuesday, after Republicans backed away from the deal amid growing criticism from the right.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who on Monday urged his colleagues to support the package, had shifted dramatically by Tuesday.

"It looks to me and to most of our members that we have no real chance here to make a law," McConnell told reporters.

The bill in question was specifically crafted to meet GOP demands that Democrats link border policy changes to President Biden's request for military aid to Israel and Ukraine. But by Monday night, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., the top Republican negotiator on the Senate deal, was predicting that a procedural vote on the package would fail this week.

"We are trying to figure out what to do next," Lankford told reporters in the Capitol. "People are saying, 'Hey, we need a lot more time to go through this.'"

The deal began to unravel after former President Donald Trump publicly trashed it and House GOP leaders proclaimed it "dead on arrival." The failure of the package — which includes roughly $20 billion for border provisions and raises the threshold to meet asylum claims — would cast doubt on Congress' ability to get anything done on border security or foreign assistance between now and Election Day.

The chaos over the border is the latest collapse for one of the least productive congressional sessions in history.

Democrats go on offense

As Congress stewed, Biden blamed Trump.

"Republicans have to decide who do they serve: Donald Trump or the American people?" Biden posed in a speech at the White House. "Are they here to solve problems, or just weaponize problems for political purposes?"

He went on to threaten that a failure on the legislation will become an issue in his own campaign.

"Every day between now and November, the American people are going to know that the only reason the border is not secure is Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican friends," Biden said.

Democrats in Congress also quickly blamed Republicans.

Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy suggested Wednesday's procedural vote would likely mark the end of a bipartisan effort to address the border, saying about Republicans, "They walked away from the old plan, they'll walk away from a new plan."

The shift has left senators from both parties discussing plans to go back to the original plan from last year to try to pass funding for Ukraine, Israel and humanitarian aid separately.

Senate plans to forge ahead with a vote

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he plans to move forward with a procedural vote to begin debate Wednesday or Thursday, in response to Republican requests for more time to consider the bill.

"Senators are elected to vote, not to be afraid, run away, make excuses when it comes to voting on the tough issues," Schumer said on the Senate floor. "No one is being asked to take a position on the supplemental tomorrow. The only thing a yes vote would allow us for the Senate to simply begin to consider, discuss and debate the vitally important issues before us now."

Even if the bill were to advance through the Senate, it faced even longer odds in the House. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., said Tuesday morning that "Republicans simply cannot vote for the bill in good conscience," arguing that it does not do enough to secure the border and that Biden already has legal authority to address the surge of migrants that he is not using.

What's next for Ukraine funding?

Several senators have suggested in recent days that Ukraine aid should be considered independently if the larger package collapses.

But it was Republicans who initially demanded that border policy changes be paired with Ukraine assistance, and it's not clear there is appetite among the House GOP for a standalone Ukraine bill.

Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was forced toremove $300 million of aid to Ukraine from a larger defense bill in the fall in order to win over a handful of GOP holdouts. Ninety-three Republicans voted for an amendment to the defense bill that would "prohibit security assistance" to Ukraine.

Johnson said Tuesday that efforts to help Ukraine "have not been abandoned. The Pentagon has warned that Ukrainian forces arerunning out of ammunition and other resources now that U.S. funding has lapsed.

Standalone bill to aid Israel goes down

In lieu of the larger package, House Republicans brought forward a bill to provide military assistance to Israel. But that proposal also failed.

Johnson brought up the bill under suspension of the House rules, which requires a two-thirds majority to pass. The final vote was 250-180, as the proposal drew opposition from both sides of the aisle.

House Democratic leaders slammed the standalone proposalas a "nakedly obvious and cynical attempt" to undermine the bipartisan deal in the Senate. Meanwhile, the House Freedom Caucus criticized the bill for its lack of financial offsets.

Republican leaders were forced to skirt a Rules Committee hearing on the bill that might have exposed anger among far-right conservatives. Rules must sign off on legislation and the full House must agree in order for a bill to come up with a simple majority vote.

Mayorkas impeachment fails, for now

As the legislative efforts appeared to falter, so too did an entirely partisan effort by House Republicans to impeach Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

The vote was stuck in a tie for several minutes as leaders scrambled to sway holdouts. But in the end, four Republicans voted against the measure and the final vote was 214 to 216, scuttling an effort that was widely seen as an opportunity to deliver on a key promise to GOP base voters.

Republicans may revisit the impeachment for another vote when Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., returns to the chamber. Scalise has been out for cancer treatment.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lexie Schapitl
Lexie Schapitl is a production assistant with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces and digital content. She also reports from the field and assists with production of the NPR Politics Podcast.
Claudia Grisales
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.
Deirdre Walsh
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Eric McDaniel
Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.