Republicans won what would seem to be a major concession from President Biden on immigration when Biden signaled that he would come to the table on tougher policies. Biden did so to secure funding for Ukraine, despite the fact that overwhelming majorities of Congress have repeatedly backed the aid.
But now Republicans don’t seem to know what to do with the opportunity they’ve been handed.
Not only do there appear to be irreconcilable differences between the approaches of hard-line House Republicans and more compromise-minded Senate Republicans, but former president Donald Trump has now signaled that Republicans should reject anything but a total capitulation from Democrats. That’s a standard that, if applied, would virtually assure that nothing gets done.
And increasingly, the party seems to be previewing arguments for the day when the failure of a compromise — and potentially, by extension, some of the raging border crisis — can be laid at its own feet.
But Republicans are finding those arguments hard to sell.
An emerging one is that the problem can’t really be solved until Trump or a Republican retakes the White House next year. Punchbowl News reported Monday that House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) made such an argument Sunday night on a House GOP conference call.
But that was quickly and summarily rejected by some high-profile Republican senators. They noted that the leverage exists now for immigration legislation, which, after all, has eluded Congress for decades.
“There’s absolutely no way that we would get the kind of border policy that’s been talked about right now with a Republican majority in the Senate, unless we get a 60-vote majority, which isn’t going to happen,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said, adding: “This is a unique moment in time.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) added that the “historic moment” is right now: “To those who think that if President Trump wins, which I hope he does, that we can get a better deal: You won’t. … To get this kind of border security without granting a pathway to citizenship is really unheard of.”
And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday, “If we had a 100 percent Republican government — president, House, Senate — we probably would not be able to get a single Democratic vote to pass” this bill.
A related argument that seems to be on the rise is the idea that Congress doesn’t even really need to pass new laws — that the administration just needs to enforce the laws already on the books and/or do this by executive action.
This argument was reportedly broached by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) during Sunday night’s House GOP conference call, and it crept into Johnson’s media appearances on Wednesday night.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham began an interview with Johnson by positing that, “You don’t need some new bill coming out of the Senate to get the border enforced.”
After Ingraham returned to the argument, Johnson said he told Biden during a meeting, “Mr. President, you have the authority right now to end this catastrophe. … We don’t need new laws. You could do it right now.”
During a separate interview with CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, Johnson repeatedly pointed to what Biden could do by executive action.
Johnson cited feedback from law enforcement on the border and said “there’s simple action that can be taken, right now. You don’t even need new federal law. You need executive action to stem the flow.”
When Johnson kept returning to what could be done by executive action, Collins noted that Johnson’s purview is legislation.
“What I’m saying is we have existing federal law on the books that [Homeland Security] Secretary [Alejandro] Mayorkas has not enforced,” Johnson responded, adding: “We need a combination, okay? But executive action is a huge and important part of this.”
There’s something to be said for driving a hard bargain. House Republicans last summer passed their own party-line immigration bill — H.R. 2 — and will want the final product to trend in that direction. Some on the Senate side have suggested that this is posturing and that the opportunity to pass something historic on immigration will ultimately prove too tempting.
But the pull of politics is stronger in the House. Not only does Johnson have to contend with an unruly conference full of people willing to torpedo things — or even a speaker — when they don’t get everything they want, but there’s a credible argument to be made that Republicans taking ownership of the border by passing a major bill could somewhat neutralize one of Biden’s major liabilities.
Rep. Troy E. Nehls (R-Tex.) put it bluntly recently, saying that “I’m not willing to do too damn much right now to help a Democrat and to help Joe Biden’s approval rating.”
Trump has also made little secret recently that he’s not exactly sad to see crises happen on Biden’s watch. And Ingraham broached the idea that new laws weren’t needed while discussing a conversation she’d had with Trump.
The Senate’s lead negotiator, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), said in a cryptically worded tweet Wednesday amid pushback on the right, “Only in Washington is our southern border political gamesmanship instead of a national security crisis.”
The problem with doing nothing now is that things are pretty far down the road, with a potential vote in the Senate as early as next week. What’s more, Senate Republicans are publicly playing up how good a deal this is for their side, and how the moment is now.
That creates a situation in which it could soon become clear that House Republicans are the reason something major didn’t happen. They seem to be preparing accordingly.