Say what you will about Mitch McConnell—over the years, I’ve said plenty. The eighty-one-year-old Senate Minority Leader has an unerring sense for internal Republican Party politics. Last month, at a closed-door meeting of the Senate G.O.P. caucus, he told his colleagues that Donald Trump’s hostility to a political deal on the southern border had left the Party “in a quandary” and would likely doom any effort to pass bipartisan legislation this year.
So it proved. On Sunday, the three senators who have been putting together a legislative package—the Republican James Lankford, of Oklahoma; the Democrat Chris Murphy, of Connecticut; and the Independent Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona—published the text of their bill, which combines measures tightening security at the U.S.-Mexico border with tens of billions of dollars in aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. The bill features many G.O.P. asks: further restricting requirements for asylum seekers, funding fifty thousand new beds in migrant detention centers, and giving the government the authority to shut the border to asylum seekers completely if more than five thousand of them cross it for seven days in a row. And it conspicuously omits a number of Democratic priorities, such as providing an eventual path to citizenship for longtime undocumented immigrants, especially those who were brought to the United States as children. Some progressives and immigrants-rights groups have harshly criticized the legislation.
Yet, despite its rightward tilt, the bill is already losing Republican support. In the Senate, which may hold a procedural vote on the bill as early as Wednesday, Montana’s Steve Daines has said that he’s a no. Even the Texan John Cornyn, a key ally of McConnell, issued a squirrelly statement, saying he had “questions and serious concerns.” In the House, the legislation seems unlikely to make it to the floor. On Sunday night, Trump’s sock puppet Mike Johnson, the recently elected Republican Speaker, said that it was “even worse than we expected,” and pronounced it “dead on arrival.” On Monday, in a joint statement with some of his colleagues in the House G.O.P. leadership, Johnson also remarked that the bill would effectively “endorse the Biden ‘catch and release’ policy”—a Republican term for the Border Patrol’s practice of temporarily detaining asylum seekers and then issuing them with court dates.
This characterization of the bill isn’t accurate—one of the main aims of the legislation is to prevent asylum seekers from entering the country in large numbers. But it’s been a long time since objective facts played much of a role in the immigration debate, and the whole sorry episode illustrates several truths about the current political climate, the first of which is blindingly obvious: Trump’s stranglehold on the Republican Party is tighter than ever.
On his social-media platform on Monday, the former President took time out from asking his followers whether he resembles Elvis Presley to denounce the bipartisan bill as “a Death Wish for the Republican Party.” Of course, what he really meant is that passing the bill and restricting the inflow of migrants could conceivably be a death wish for his Presidential campaign, because it might deprive him of his signature issue. As other Republicans sought to explain their opposition to the legislation in terms of its contents, Trump, as he often does, said the quiet part out loud. In a second social-media post, he described the bill as “a highly sophisticated trap for Republicans to assume the blame on what the Radical Left Democrats have done to our Border, just in time for our most important EVER Election.” And he went on: “Don’t fall for it!!!”
Republicans bowed to Trump’s demands, which means they are now willing to allow the situation at the border to persist for at least another ten months. There are only two possible explanations for this stance: they are either ignoring what they have repeatedly described as a grave threat to national security, or they have been deliberately exaggerating the dangers all along for political reasons. No prizes for guessing the correct explanation.
In any case, though, the recent surge in migrants, especially in places like New York and Chicago, has scrambled party lines, with senior Democrats emerging as some of the strongest supporters of immediate action to tighten border security. Shortly after the bill was released, on Sunday, President Joe Biden, in a White House statement, said he strongly supported it and urged both houses of Congress to pass it quickly so that he could sign it into law. On Monday, Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, asked Speaker Johnson to defy the extremists in his caucus and support the bill.
The Democratic pivot reflects concerns expressed by Party leaders in blue cities and states, whose administrations are struggling to deal with a big influx of migrants, and who have been asking for more help from the White House. It also reflects worries that Republican efforts to exploit the immigration issue in November could succeed in putting Trump back in office. In a sign of possible things to come, Long Island Republicans are making the inflow of migrants a gig issue in next week’s special election to fill the congressional seat vacated by their disgraced colleague George Santos. In an interview with CNN, Tom Suozzi, the veteran Democrat who is running for the seat, identified immigration and crime as issues that the Republicans were successfully weaponizing in the district. “The Democratic brand is in trouble here, and we have to do a lot to overcome that,” he said.
Suozzi also mentioned that he would like Biden “to do a better job on immigration,” and called on him to seize the issue, propose a solution, and flip the script on Republicans. In talking tough and supporting the Lankford-Murphy-Sinema bill, Biden is trying to do precisely that. “Working with my administration, the United States Senate has done the hard work it takes to reach a bipartisan agreement,” Biden said, in his statement. “Now, House Republicans have to decide. Do they want to solve the problem? Or do they want to keep playing politics with the border?”
With Trump directing G.O.P. operations, that last question answers itself. ♦