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Senators look for Biden, McConnell to step up after Republicans block Ukraine funding bill

Senators in both parties are calling for President Biden and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to take a more active role in negotiations over a package to fund Ukraine and Israel and secure the U.S.-Mexico border after GOP senators voted unanimously Wednesday to block a motion to proceed on the $110 billion bill.

Biden’s request for military aid to Ukraine and Israel, humanitarian assistance for Gaza and funding to secure the southern border now appears to be in serious jeopardy after talks over border security broke down Friday.

That’s when Sen. James Lankford (Okla.), the lead Republican negotiator, offered a proposal that Democrats say “mirrored” the proposals in the House-passed Secure the Border Act, which Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has called a non-starter.

Schumer tried to break the impasse Wednesday by promising Republicans they could offer the first amendment to the foreign aid package and propose whatever border security reforms they think could win 60 votes on the Senate floor, but GOP senators slapped down the offer.

With only two work weeks left before Christmas, senators acknowledge it’s looking more likely that Congress won’t pass new money for Ukraine this year, and some are calling on Biden and McConnell, who have a long history of negotiating major deals, to get more directly involved.

“I think it would be very helpful to have the White House as part of this negotiation,” Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said. “In the wake of this failed vote, it’s an appropriate time.”

Bennet noted that Biden and McConnell put together a major deal to avoid the fiscal cliff at the end of 2012, after negotiators in Congress couldn’t reach a deal on the expiring Bush-era tax cuts.

McConnell also worked with Biden to avoid a national default in the summer of 2011 and to temporarily extend the Bush tax cuts after the 2010 midterm election.

“This would be a great moment for President Biden and for Leader McConnell to come to an agreement on something so important, and they are the only ones who can come to this agreement, really,” Bennet said. “This is an important moment for President Biden and for Leader McConnell to do what they do best, which is negotiate in the interests of the country.”

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said it’s his “assessment” that party leaders need to take a more active role in the talks after the Senate negotiating group led by Lankford and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) fell apart last week. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) has also participated in the Senate border security talks.

“It’s going to require the president to acknowledge that they have to fix the border. It means his policies have got to be recognized as the root cause of the problems on the southern border,” he said.

Rounds said it would be “better” if any deal on Ukraine funding and border security were worked out between Biden and Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), but he said Johnson is constrained by the threat that a small group of Republicans could force his ouster by advancing a motion to vacate the Speaker’s chair.

“The problem is the Speaker is in such a precarious position that if he made a deal with the president,” Rounds said, “his outcome would be the same” as former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.).

“So I think we have a better shot of getting it if the president and the minority leader in the Senate sit down, find a common agreement that all sides can agree on and then we take it to the House,” he added. “I’m convinced that whatever we come up with in the Senate will get a supermajority in the House.”

Rounds emphasized that Lankford “knows” border security “better than anybody” and that his “expertise is extremely valuable,” suggesting he could be a part of summit talks with Biden.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said the negotiations over border security need to be kicked up to the leadership level.

“When the big deals get made, ultimately it’s the folks on top that either give that final blessing or do that final negotiation, and we’re running down the clock here, and the stakes are too high to leave this unfinished,” she said. “Whether it’s the president and McConnell, I think that probably remains to be seen, but I do think that we need to take this to a place where we can make a deal that can be signed into law.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and other GOP senators are highly skeptical that Schumer or anyone he names to a negotiation will agree to the border security reforms that Republicans are insisting ride along with funding for Ukraine.

“I think what came out of yesterday’s briefing” on Ukraine “is how much Democrats don’t want to secure the border,” he said. “Certainly, Leader Schumer — doesn’t sound like there’s any desire on his part to do something to secure the border.”

Schumer has argued that Biden’s request to Congress would significantly improve border security by providing funding for 1,300 additional border agents, 100 inspection machines to detect fentanyl, 1,600 additional asylum officers and 375 new immigration judge teams.

Murphy told reporters last week that senior White House officials have become steadily more involved in the Senate negotiations. He said the major problem in the talks is that Republicans are pushing for reforms that are broadly unpalatable to the Democratic Party.

One GOP senator who requested anonymity voiced skepticism about Lankford’s and Murphy’s ability to “land the plane” without more intervention from McConnell and Biden, even though the senators are highly respected by their peers.

Sources close to McConnell, meanwhile, are pushing back on the idea that he’s going to suddenly work out a deal with Biden on border security and Ukraine funding after deputizing Lankford to take the lead for Republicans.

McConnell has backed up Lankford and other conservatives calling for major asylum policy reforms by framing the huge flow of migrants into the country as a major national security problem.

“As we’ve said for weeks, legislation that doesn’t include policy changes to secure our borders will not pass the Senate. The situation unfolding at our southern border on President Biden’s watch is a crisis of historic proportions. It’s glaring. It’s acute. And it’s undermining America’s national security,” the GOP leader said before Wednesday’s vote.

Customs and Border Patrol tallied 12,000 encounters with migrants at the border Tuesday, the highest number ever recorded.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), a member of the bipartisan group of senators negotiating border security reforms, said Wednesday that a “lot more work” remains to be done and expressed uncertainty about getting a deal before year’s end.

“I’ve been pretty open to ideas, but I have not yet seen something that even comes close to reducing future flows,” he added.

Asked about Biden and McConnell getting more involved in the talks, Tillis said that could be a good idea “as long as that produces 25 of my Republicans voting for it,” warning that he doesn’t want to see a deal that picks up only nine or 10 Senate GOP votes.

“What we need is for everyone to understand that we have to have a policy that will cut in half or more the flows across the border, or we’re not going to have a deal,” Tillis said.

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