House Republicans Visit US-Texas Border as Ukraine Aid Hangs in Balance

EAGLE PASS, Texas — U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson is leading about 60 fellow Republicans in Congress on a visit Wednesday to the Mexican border as they demand hard-line immigration policies in exchange for backing President Joe Biden’s emergency wartime funding request for Ukraine. The trip to Eagle Pass, Texas, comes as Senate negotiators keep plugging away in hopes of a bipartisan deal.

With the number of illegal crossings into the United States topping 10,000 on several days last month, the border city has been at the center of Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, his nearly $10 billion initiative that has tested the federal government’s authority over immigration and elevated the political fight over the issue.

An agreement in the lengthy talks in Washington would unlock Republican support for Biden’s $110 billion package for Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. security priorities. In meetings, Senators Kyrsten Sinema, an Independent from Arizona, James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, and Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, are trying to make progress before Congress returns to Washington next week.

It is not known whether Johnson, who has called for “transformational” changes to border and immigration policies, would accept a bipartisan deal from the Senate. Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, has pointed to a House bill, passed in May without a single Democratic vote, that would build more of the border wall and impose new restrictions on asylum seekers. Democrats said the legislation was “cruel” and “anti-immigrant,” and Biden promised a veto.

Nonetheless, the president has expressed a willingness to make policy compromises as the historic number of migrants crossing the border is an increasing challenge for his 2024 reelection campaign. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and White House staff have been involved in the Senate negotiations.

“We’ve got to do something,” Biden told reporters Tuesday night. He said Congress should approve his national security proposal because it also includes money for managing the influx of migrants. “They ought to give me the money I need to protect the border,” he said.

Administration officials have criticized Johnson’s trip as a political ploy that will do little to solve the problem.

“When they’re at the border, they’re going to see the magnitude of the problem and why we have said now for about three decades, their broken immigration system is in desperate need of legislative reform,” Mayorkas told CNN on Wednesday. “So, we are focused on the solutions, and we hope that they will return to Washington and focus on the solutions as well.”

House Republicans contend that Mayorkas’ management of the border has amounted to a dereliction of his duties and they are moving ahead with rare impeachment proceedings against a Cabinet member, with a first committee hearing on the matter scheduled for next week. Mayorkas told MSNBC he would cooperate with an inquiry.

During parts of December, border crossings in Eagle Pass, as well as other locations, swamped the resources of Customs and Border Protection officials. Authorities closed cargo rail crossings in Eagle Pass and El Paso for five days and shut down border crossings in the Arizona city of Lukeville.

Authorities say the numbers of migrants eased over the December holidays as part of a seasonal pattern. The border crossings are reopening, and illegal crossings in Eagle Pass fell to 500 on Monday, according to administration officials who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity. Along the entire border, arrests for illegal crossings from Mexico fell to about 2,500 on Monday, from more than 10,000 on several days in December, officials said.

Republicans, who see the high number of migrants arriving at the border as a political weakness for the president, are pressuring Biden and Democrats to accept strict border measures.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told reporters in Kentucky on Tuesday that in a conversation with 81-year-old Biden, he made the case: “You can’t do anything about how old you are, you can’t do anything about inflation, but this is something that’s measurable that you could claim credit for.”

McConnell also said he was approaching the talks with “optimism that somehow we will get this all together and we’re giving it our best shot.”

Senate negotiators have focused on tougher asylum protocols for migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, bolstering border enforcement with more personnel and high-tech systems, and enforcement measures that would kick in if the number of daily crossings passed a certain threshold.

Murphy, the chief Democratic negotiator, said Tuesday that he hoped that “at some point, Republicans can take the offer that we’ve all been working on together in the room for a long time.”

He raised concern that the longer the talks draw out, the longer it leaves Ukraine’s defenses hanging without assured support from the U.S. in the war with Russia.

The Pentagon in late December announced what officials say could be the final package of military aid for Ukraine if Congress does not approve Biden’s funding request. The weapons, worth up to $250 million, include air munitions and other missiles, artillery, anti-armor systems, ammunition, demolition and medical equipment and parts.

Russia has unleashed a flurry of missile and drone strikes on Ukraine in the new year.

“The consequence of Republicans’ decision to tie Ukraine funding to border is that the Ukrainians are already at a moment of real crisis,” Murphy said.