Border bill fails Senate test vote as Democrats seek to underscore Republican resistance

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans again blocked a bill meant to clamp down on the number of migrants allowed to claim asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sought Thursday to underscore GOP resistance to the proposal.

The legislation, negotiated by a bipartisan group of senators, was already rejected by most Republicans in February when it was linked to a foreign aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies. But with immigration and border security becoming one of the top issues of this year’s election, Democrats are looking for an answer to the barrage of GOP attacks, led by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. 

“To those who’ve said for years Congress needs to act on the border, this bipartisan bill is the answer, and it’s time to show we’re serious about fixing the problem,” Schumer, a New York Democrat, said ahead of the vote

Schumer is trying to defend a narrow Senate majority in this year’s election and sees the Republicans’ rejection of the deal they negotiated as a political “gift” for Democrats.

While a majority of Senate Democrats again supported the procedural vote to begin debate on the bill Thursday, the proposal failed 43-50. When the proposal was brought up in February, a test vote failed 49-50 — well shy of the 60 votes needed to advance. 

Not even some of the bill’s primary authors, Sens. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, and Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent, voted for Schumer’s move. 

“Today is not a bill, today is a prop,” Lankford said on the floor ahead of the vote. “Everyone sees it for what it is.” 

Sinema called the vote “political theater” that will do nothing to solve problems at the border. 

“To use this failure as a political punching bag only punishes those who were courageous enough to do the hard work in the first place,” she said. 

Republican leaders spent much of the week decrying the vote as a bald-faced political maneuver and amplifying a well-worn criticism of President Joe Biden: That he bears responsibility for the historic number of migrants who have made their way to the U.S. in recent years. 

“We’re nearing the end of President Biden’ s term, and the American people’s patience for his failing to secure the southern border is running thin,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday

Earlier in the week, McConnell told reporters, “The president needs to step up to it — do everything he can do on his own because legislation is obviously not going to clear this year.”

Since the collapse of the Senate’s legislation in February, the Biden administration has been considering executive orders on border policy and immigration. It has already made some changes to the asylum system meant to speed up processing and potential removal of migrants. Yet the Senate’s test vote this week was widely seen as part of a lead-up to Biden issuing more sweeping border measures, potentially as early as June.

The Democratic president has considered using a provision in federal immigration law that gives leeway to block entry of certain immigrants into the U.S. if it would be “detrimental” to the national interest of the United States. The authority was repeatedly tapped by Trump when he was in the White House, but some of those actions faced legal challenges.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters Monday that legislation to address problems at the border — as opposed to executive actions by the president — would be more effective. The Senate legislation would provide more money for Customs and Border Protection officials, asylum officers, immigration judges and scanning technology at the border — all things that officials have said the underfunded immigration and border protection system needs.

“The legislation provides tools that executive action cannot,” Mayorkas said.

The Senate bill aimed at gaining control of an asylum system that has sometimes been overwhelmed in the last year. It would provide faster and tougher enforcement of the asylum process, as well as give presidents new powers to immediately expel migrants if the numbers encountered by border officials exceed an average of 4,000 per day over a week.

Even before the bill was fully released earlier this year, Trump effectively killed the proposal by labeling it “meaningless” and a “gift” for Biden’s reelection chances. Top Republicans soon followed his lead and even McConnell, who had initially demanded the negotiation over the border measures, voted against moving forward.

A significant number of Democrats have also criticized the proposal, mostly because it does not include any broad relief for immigrants who have already established lives in the United States.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus said in a statement this week that the Senate’s bill “fails to meet the moment by putting forth enforcement-only policies and failing to include provisions that will keep families together.”

Amid the tension, Biden’s reelection campaign met with CHC leadership Wednesday to discuss outreach to Latino communities, and Biden spoke on the phone with Rep. Nanette Barragan, the chair of the group.

Still, for Democratic senators facing tough reelection battles, the vote Thursday provided another opportunity to show they were supportive of stronger border measures as well as distance themselves from Biden’s handling of the border.