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WASHINGTON — U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn voted down the White House’s request to supply Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan with defense aid, joining their party in holding up the bill unless it comes with a complete overhaul of border and immigration policy.
The legislation, which fell short of getting the 60 votes it needed for a procedural vote, would allocate more than $100 billion in defense aid for the three countries.
Continued defense aid for U.S. allies has been a bipartisan priority in the Senate. Senate Republicans, including Cornyn and Cruz, say that a Russian victory in Ukraine would be damaging for U.S. security interests. But despite that position, Senate Republicans are holding firm against the defense funding, using it as leverage to advance overhauls of border and immigration policy, asserting it is also a pressing national security priority.
"I support funding for Ukraine, I support funding for Israel. But this is an opportunity for us to force the Biden administration to do what they should have been doing all along," Cornyn told reporters last week.
The White House requested the defense funding, warning that Ukraine’s war effort would falter if it isn’t provided the defense aid it has asked for. The White House included additional border funding to sweeten the deal for Republicans, particularly far-right House members who are increasingly skeptical of foreign aid. The border funding included over $13 billion for clearing up the asylum backlog, bringing on more immigration judges and Border Patrol agents.
Republicans including Cruz and Cornyn made it clear that would not be enough.
"The border funding that is included is all designed to accelerate the processing of illegal immigration," Cruz said in a Fox News interview. "In other words, it's not designed to stop the crisis at our southern border. It's designed to make it worse."
Republicans aren’t unified on what would be sufficient border legislation. Some demand full inclusion of a House-passed Secure the Border Act that has no backing among Democrats. Cruz introduced the Senate version of that bill in September. A working group of Senate Republicans introduced their own proposal last month. Republicans across the board agree on making it harder to request asylum and adding more physical barriers.
Hope of a bipartisan deal seems to be evaporating. A small bipartisan working group fell apart over the weekend, with progressives and conservatives frustrated with some of the proposals under consideration. After Wednesday's vote, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Independent in the group, said in a statement that "Partisans’ approach of demanding all or nothing results in getting nothing for the American people."
Cornyn has previously been a bipartisan broker in some of Congress’ thorniest issues, securing a deal last year to pass the first gun safety bill in a generation. He helped lead a bipartisan delegation of senators to the U.S. Border Patrol's El Paso sector earlier this year and expressed optimism at the time that they could find a path forward on the border and immigration. But Cornyn was not part of the latest bipartisan Senate border discussions.
“This is not a traditional negotiation, where we expect to come up with a bipartisan compromise on the border. This is a price that has to be paid in order to get the supplemental” funding, Cornyn told NBC News.
Democrats feel tying a bipartisan defense priority to such a partisan lightning rod creates a needless roadblock.
“Has border been nothing more than an excuse for the hard right to kill funding for Ukraine, and too many other Republican Senators who are not part of the hard right are going along?” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “I hope that’s not true.”
President Joe Biden warned Wednesday that failure to pass funding for Ukraine damages the U.S.’ reputation, making the country appear to be an unreliable partner that lets parochial issues get in the way of global security. He said he would be willing to do more to change border policy if it secures funding for Ukraine, but did not say how far he would go.
Progressives fear that capitulating to Republican demands on the border would mean sacrificing their principles on immigrants’ rights. House Republicans want nothing less than the tough border restrictions in the Secure the Border Act. The bill came out of proposals pitched by Texas House Republicans, and includes construction of a border wall, restrictions on requesting asylum and detaining or deporting migrants while their asylum cases are pending.
“Congressional Republicans want Democrats to throw asylum seekers under the bus in exchange for a vote on Ukraine funding. I will strongly oppose that trade,” Rep. Greg Casar, D-Austin, said in a statement. “I support the defense of Ukraine, but hurting immigrant families simply cannot be a part of the deal.”
Cornyn acknowledged that a full inclusion of the House Republican bill likely won’t go anywhere with Democrats in control of the Senate. He told reporters “we're going to do the best we can in terms of taking some of the elements of it.” The Senate Republican working group’s plan last month included similar proposals to the House bill on detentions, expulsions and a border wall.
But Texas’ House Republicans pushed back, saying it was their bill or nothing. U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, led a letter to Senate Republicans with 23 other Texas Republicans urging the upper chamber to adopt their bill.
“There’s no need for another watered-down border security proposal when we have [The Secure the Border Act], which has the policies to stop the crisis,” Roy said on social media.
House Republican leadership adopted the Texas delegation stance. House Speaker Mike Johnson wrote to Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget, on Tuesday that “supplemental Ukraine funding is dependent upon enactment of transformative change to our nation’s border security laws.” Young had written a day before to House Republicans that failure to give Ukraine money would likely lead to a Russian victory.
Though Ukraine aid still has its ardent defenders among House Republicans, other members are becoming increasingly skeptical. The border has remained the superseding priority for the conference, and several House Republicans concerned with the ballooning national debt demand greater oversight to make sure foreign aid is spent properly.
“The Washington Swamp continues to be more concerned with stopping the Russian invasion of Ukraine than stopping the invasion of America at the Southern Border,” U.S. Rep. Randy Weber wrote on social media.
U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, was the only Texas House Republican not to sign onto Roy’s letter, saying the “The time for sternly written letters that net ZERO results is over.” Gonzales has pushed back on his own party’s border proposals for being too draconian and said Congress can pass more legislation to “completely shut down the border” after a 2024 Donald Trump presidential victory.