What the border bill reveals about toxic congressional politics

THE NUMBER OF migrants caught at America’s southern border has soared to record levels during Joe Biden’s presidency. Negotiations between the White House and several senators on a deal to increase border security in exchange for funding for Ukraine and Israel have dragged on for months. The text of a bill released by the Senate on February 4th is far more conservative than any attempt at bipartisan immigration reform this century.

Yet shortly after the bill was revealed by its chief negotiators—James Lankford of Oklahoma, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Chris Murphy of Connecticut—their colleagues in the House of Representatives denounced the effort. Mike Johnson, the Republican speaker, posted on X (formerly Twitter) that the bill would be “dead on arrival” in the lower chamber. Much more than border security and Mr Biden’s re-election prospects is at stake. The $118bn bill includes $60bn to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia, $20bn for border security and the immigration system, $14bn for Israel and $10bn for humanitarian aid to be spread across Gaza, the West Bank and Ukraine, among other things.

In a non-election year, the bill’s border provisions would be a Republican dream. It would grant the Department of Homeland Security the power to shut down asylum to those crossing illegally if the number of people trying to cross exceeds a certain threshold. But there would be limits on how long the emergency power could be used, and the small number of migrants who show up at a port of entry with an appointment would still be processed. The bill would make it harder for migrants to pass their preliminary asylum interviews, limit parole at the border—a presidential authority that Republicans say the Biden administration has used too liberally—and expand detention. A big chunk of the $20bn will go towards building more detention facilities, flying migrants back home and hiring more Border Patrol agents and asylum officers.

The bill contains some carrots for the many Democrats squeamish about restricting asylum. It would create a path to residency for Afghans who had helped American forces prior to their disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. It would slightly expand legal immigration by offering 50,000 additional immigrant visas each year for five years, and protect the children of long-term visa holders from deportation and allow them to work. But it notably does not contain a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, nor relief for migrants brought to America as children, known as DREAMers.

Republicans’ negative reactions were overwhelming and swift—considering the bill is 370 pages long. Steve Scalise, the number two Republican in the House, said that it would not even get a vote in the lower chamber. Republicans are under pressure from Donald Trump, who is delighting in campaigning on border discord. “Only a fool, or a Radical Left Democrat, would vote for this horrendous Border Bill”, the former president wrote on his social-media platform, Truth Social.

This is not the first time that the Senate has tried to finagle a compromise while the House campaigns. This dichotomy reflects the fundamental differences between the two chambers. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison envisioned the Senate as a moderating influence. The chamber would act as a “salutary check” on the “sudden and violent passions” of many legislative bodies, and their ability to be “seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions”. It is not hard to imagine how House Republicans and Mr Trump fit into Madison’s chaos scenario.

The Senate’s longer term lengths also protect its members from the perpetual campaigning of their colleagues in the House. Mr Lankford will not have to answer for his bill at the polls in November, having just been elected to a six-year term in 2022. But Mr Johnson will. Yet a recent poll from YouGov suggests that a narrow plurality of Americans support the compromise. Mr Johnson’s bigger threat is from his own caucus, any one of whom can call a vote for his removal as speaker. Their mutiny against Kevin McCarthy last year proves that is not an empty threat. It is Mr Trump and the far-right House Freedom Caucus holding the executioner’s axe, not Mr Johnson’s constituents.

The same dynamics have doomed past bipartisan bills. The Senate—led by John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, and Ted Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts—debated comprehensive immigration reform several times during George W. Bush’s presidency. The bills generally paired increased border enforcement with a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. Each effort failed. Judging by the immediate condemnation of the senators’ efforts, this bill will probably meet the same ignominious end. Under pressure from Mr Trump, Senate Republicans have soured on the bill they helped to craft. Mr Biden will find it hard to bring order to the border without the bill’s billions. Republicans are counting on it.