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Negotiators release $118 billion border bill as GOP leaders call it dead in the House

Left: Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., speaks on border security and Title 42 during a press conference at the Capitol on May 11, 2023. Right: U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn., at press conference on Jan. 23, in Washington, D.C.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images; Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Left: Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., speaks on border security and Title 42 during a press conference at the Capitol on May 11, 2023. Right: U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn., at press conference on Jan. 23, in Washington, D.C.

Updated February 4, 2024 at 9:52 PM ET

After months of negotiations, a trio of Senate negotiators unveiled a $118 billion bipartisan agreement to overhaul some key Biden administration immigration policies. But the legislation is already hitting a brick wall in the House where GOP leaders are declaring it "dead on arrival."

"The deal creates a real opportunity for Congress to address our borders and make progress to a more efficient and well-resourced system," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters after details of the proposal were released.

The bill is part of a national security funding package that includes additional money for Ukraine and Israel. But as the issue of the border becomes a central flashpoint in the 2024 presidential campaign, and former President Trump publicly urges GOP lawmakers to oppose the deal, the prospects for the bill reaching President Biden's desk seem bleak.

The bill includes:

  • Just over $20 billion for border provisions, including expansions to existing policies and new policies. That includes $650 million for the border wall, approximately $4 billion to hire new asylum officers and additional funds to provide counsel for unaccompanied children.
  • $60.06 billion in security aid for Ukraine.
  • $14.1 billion in aid for Israel.
  • $10 billion in humanitarian assistance for civilians in Gaza, the West Bank, Ukraine and "other populations caught in conflict zones."
  • $2.33 billion for refugees from the war in Ukraine.
  • $4.83 billion for allies to "deter aggression by the Chinese government" in the Indo-Pacific region.

The proposal installs several tools to address the border, including: requiring the president shut down the border if the numbers of migrants hits a specific threshold; adjusting the rules for who qualifies for asylum; expediting the process for deciding asylum claims; and allowing migrants authorization to work while awaiting adjudication of their asylum claim.

For several months Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Lankford, Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy and Arizona independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema have worked on a plan to address the record number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Schumer said Sunday that he plans to move the bill this week, with a key vote on Wednesday. "Senators must shut out the noise from those who want this agreement to fail for their own political agendas," Schumer wrote in a statement.

But House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has already made clear that the bill has no future beyond the Senate.

"I've seen enough. This bill is even worse than we expected, and won't come close to ending the border catastrophe the President has created. As the lead Democrat negotiator proclaimed: Under this legislation, 'the border never closes.' If this bill reaches the House, it will be dead on arrival," Johnson posted on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter.

The bill is not the type of comprehensive immigration legislation that Congress considered but failed to advance more than a decade ago. Instead, negotiators focused their time on addressing the discreet problems facing border officials and border towns as record numbers of migrants continue to cross the U.S. border with Mexico.

In a statement, Biden said while the bipartisan agreement doesn't address everything he wanted, the reforms are essential for making the border more orderly, secure, fair and humane. He pointed to key provisions in the proposal, including new presidential emergency authority to shut down the border when it becomes overwhelmed and make the asylum process fairer and more efficient.

"If you believe, as I do, that we must secure the border now, doing nothing is not an option. Working with my administration, the United States Senate has done the hard work it takes to reach a bipartisan agreement," Biden said. "Now, House Republicans have to decide. Do they want to solve the problem? Or do they want to keep playing politics with the border?"

Before the bill was unveiled, Biden vowed recently, while campaigning in South Carolina, he would sign it and shut down the border.

The proposal directs the president to shut down the border in moments of high migrant traffic

Sinema characterized the bill as ending "catch and release" policies. The bill would require those crossing the border illegally to be detained or immediately returned to Mexico, Sinema told reporters on Sunday.

"We actually have to change the outdated policies that have allowed our border crisis to get too out of control," she said.

She said the bill also includes higher standards for asylum and would speed up the process for asylum seekers to ensure a hearing on their case within six months.

She clarified that there would be a mandated border shutdown when migrant traffic reaches 5,000 "approaches" per day, and the president would have the option to institute a shutdown at earlier points.

Sinema told reporters on a call Sunday that the new provisions would have shut down the border every single day this year.

"Every single day this calendar year has been over that 4,000 threshold, and many of the days have been over the 5,000 threshold," Sinema said. "If this law were already in effect, the border would have been closed every single day this year."

Lankford and other negotiators have raised concerns about misinformation surrounding the bill.

"This body is really good at tweaking old things, we're not good at creating something brand new," Lankford said.

The legislation also adds some restrictions around the ability of migrants to claim asylum. The bill also narrows the president's authority to parole those migrants who are permitted to enter as they await court hearings to adjudicate their asylum claims.

In response to a push from Democratic governors and mayors who are dealing with a significant wave of migrants in their states and cities, the bill includes work permits for migrants so they can gain jobs as their cases are processed. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott claims his administration has sent more than 100,000 migrants to cities like Los Angeles, Denver and New York.

The president sent Congress an emergency funding package in October asking for over $100 billion for aid to Ukraine, Israel and efforts to support Taiwan against Chinese aggression. The proposal also requested additional money to beef up security at the southwest border, but Republicans quickly decided that any new money had to be linked to border policy changes.

Election-year politics impacts fate of the bill

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has argued that Congress should seize this moment to force the Biden administration to agree to a new law.

"If this were not divided government we wouldn't have an opportunity to do anything about the border — in fact, I don't think we'd get 60 votes for any border plan if we had a fully Republican government, so this is a unique opportunity where divided government has given us an opportunity to get an outcome," McConnell said.

But just a day later McConnell told a closed-door meeting of Senate Republicans that the politics of the issue had shifted. He pointed to a statement from Trump, the party's likely presidential nominee, opposing a Senate deal.

McConnell publicly supported the negotiators moving forward, but the episode made it clear that the Republican Party, largely behind Trump, was not prepared to cross him on an already politically thorny issue he has made a signature of his campaign.

House Speaker Johnson, in a letter to House GOP colleagues days before it was announced, said the proposal's main structure meant it was "dead on arrival," and it's unclear whether he would even bring the measure to the House floor for a vote. Many hard-right House GOP lawmakers dismissed the Senate work product before it was finalized. One conservative, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., signaled she would move to oust the speaker if he advanced the bill, since it is part of a national security package that includes money for Ukraine.

Many Republican lawmakers argued Biden has the authority now to shut down the border and any new legislation should wait until after the 2024 election.

-- NPR's Jasmine Garsd contributed to this story

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Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.