Senator Thom Tillis (right) speaks on the border.
Sen. Thom Tillis. Mariam Zuhaib/AP

Despite Pressure From Trump, GOP Negotiators Aren’t Ready to Abandon a Border Deal

“We don’t need to continue to perpetuate the crisis at the border,” said Sen. Thom Tillis.

Senators finalizing a bipartisan immigration deal insist it’s not dead even though Donald Trump opposes it, House Republicans are largely lined up against it and Mitch McConnell has privately cast doubt on it.

The bill, which is meant to address what almost all Republicans agree is a crisis at the southern U.S. border, is dividing lawmakers. It will serve as a testing ground for one of the year’s biggest questions in Congress: With an election months away and Trump poised to be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, is it possible to get anything done on immigration? And will anyone even bother to try if this latest effort falls through?

During a closed Republican Conference meeting on Wednesday, McConnell said the politics of the border “have changed” and he doesn’t want to undermine Trump as he seeks to run on immigration policy differences with the Biden administration, Punchbowl News first reported.

While some Republican lawmakers said McConnell’s remarks had been misconstrued and he was just stating political realities while still supporting the bill, others backed up the view that the GOP leader had acknowledged that the yet-to-be-unveiled deal has little chance of becoming law. (McConnell’s office declined to comment on the matter.)

“It sounded to me like he was suggesting that the negotiations aren’t going anywhere and that the border bill is dead,” Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri said Thursday.

McConnell certainly wouldn’t be the first Republican to suggest an immigration deal is impossible in this election year — or to admit it would be politically beneficial to leave the issue on the table for later.

“I mean, let’s face it. This is really February. The election’s in November,” Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina told NOTUS on Jan. 18. “Let’s say we pass the most strict border control — making this administration do it, putting the metrics to it — it’s just going to be tough.”

Rep. Troy Nehls, a Texas Republican, put it much more bluntly earlier this month.

“I’m not willing to do too damn much right now to help a Democrat and to help Joe Biden’s approval rating,” he told CNN.

But many lawmakers, including Republicans, say the matter is too important to leave to next year. The number of migrants at the southern border has surged. U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded a huge jump in encounters, from just over 400,000 in 2020 to more than 1.6 million in 2021. Those high numbers have remained roughly steady since.

“I can’t conceive of leaving this behind right now for crass political reasons,” said Indiana Sen. Todd Young, a Republican, who argued getting the deal passed would be “a remarkable success for the Republican minority in the Senate.”

To view the issue from a political lens is “immoral,” Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said. He also thinks Trump has plenty going for him in November even without immigration as a key campaign issue.

“If he is the nominee, and he’s likely to be, he’s going to win on a devastated economy, failure to lead globally, a number of other things that make President Biden weak,” Tillis told reporters of Trump. “We don’t need to continue to perpetuate the crisis at the border.”

Tillis said it would be far more difficult to strike a border security deal with Democratic lawmakers in a second Trump administration than now, during Biden’s presidency. To win Trump over on a deal, Tillis told reporters, Republicans would need to pitch it to him as granting him even more power to take action on the border after he gets elected in November.

Trump has not been convinced of this so far. He has reportedly made calls to pressure senators to kill the border deal, and House Speaker Mike Johnson said the two speak frequently on the issue.

Ohio Republican Sen. J.D. Vance said he spoke with Trump about the deal last week and Trump raised fears it wouldn’t be strong enough.

“What we’ve heard and what we expect is going to be in it is not especially good,” Vance told NOTUS of the bill. “We could wake up tomorrow and get legislative text - and this is the world’s greatest border security proposal.”

“If that’s true, then I will obviously support it,” he said. “I’m skeptical that’s actually going to be true.”

Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford, who is leading the talks along with Arizona Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, said he hasn’t kept Trump informed of how the legislation is shaping up. Lankford told NOTUS he hasn’t spoken to the former president about the negotiations “in several months.”

But he and others involved in the negotiations also say they’re not giving up.

“We are going forward,” Lankford told reporters. “It’s not stopped.”

He and Tillis also both said McConnell’s remarks had been misconstrued by the press. “That didn’t happen,” a visibly frustrated Tillis said of Punchbowl News’s reporting that McConnell may defer to Trump.

“I mean, that’s like parallel universe shit,” he added.

Tillis accused his conservative colleagues who have voiced opposition to the legislation before it’s even been introduced of acting out of fear.

“Don’t be a coward,” he said. “Don’t pretend that the policy isn’t strong.”

There’s another concern driving Tills: “I do not want to be a part of history that fails democracy,” he told reporters.

If the immigration talks collapse, as much as $61 billion in funding to aid Ukraine in its defense against Russia would be delayed, with no clear alternative vehicle to get it through Congress anytime soon. Republicans insisted on combining border security with Ukraine assistance and the package is also expected to include further aid to Israel and Taiwan.

Something else casting doubt on the negotiators’ ability to get an immigration deal done: The GOP’s more conservative flank doesn’t see an urgent need for it. They think the state of the southern border is a failure of the Biden administration, not a failure of lawmakers.

“I’ve been skeptical all along, because I think Joe Biden has all the authority right now under existing law to close the border, and he doesn’t want to do it,” said Missouri Senator Eric Schmitt.

For their part, Democrats on Thursday said they weren’t sure what was unfolding within the Republican conference.

“Republicans need to decide: Is this urgent or not?” California Sen. Alex Padilla said. “Is it a crisis or not? They claim a sense of urgency, and now they want to wait until after the November election? It makes no sense.”

Murphy likewise expressed frustration but remained optimistic about what the talks could produce. “I hope that there’s still a majority of Republicans that want to solve problems and don’t just want to keep problems open for political purposes,” he told reporters.

Murphy has been in the Senate since 2013 and has participated in negotiations like these enough times to watch them fall apart over and over again. What about today’s dynamics makes him feel like these talks could be successful, after more than a decade of Congress failing to address major immigration problems?

“The stakes here are just so much higher than almost anything else we do,” Murphy told NOTUS. “This is the future of the free world, right? If Republicans blow this up, Vladimir Putin will win the war, and Europe will be at risk.”

“The stakes are pretty grave, which gives me hope that the good faith forces in the Republican Party will win this fight,” he said.

Haley Byrd Wilt is a reporter at NOTUS. Casey Murray is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.