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Why the GOP Doesn’t Really Want a Deal on Ukraine and the Border

Photo by The Atlantic
Thought Leader: David Frum
December 12, 2023
Source: The Atlantic
Written by: David Frum

We’re not going to negotiate in the pages of The Atlantic.”

That was the response I got from a congressional staffer when I pressed for some details, any details, on what really separated Democrats from Republicans on aid to Ukraine.

For two years, the Ukrainians have fought heroically to defend their country against Russia’s invasion. The United States and other allies have funded that defense. But Russia has not given up, and past rounds of U.S. aid are nearly exhausted. For Ukraine to keep fighting, it urgently needs more aid.

The Biden administration has sent Congress a request for $61 billion in new funds for Ukraine and $14 billion to help Israel defend itself against Hamas and Hezbollah. The package also includes humanitarian assistance to people displaced by the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, as well as assistance to Indo-Pacific allies, and $14 billion for border security (for a total of $111 billion).

Republicans in the House and Senate are resisting this request. The ostensible reason is that they want more radical action on the border than the Biden administration has offered. The whole aid package is now stalled, with potentially catastrophic consequences for Ukraine. Ukrainian units are literally running out of ammunition. If supplies of military equipment are interrupted, restarting them will take a while, which means that Ukraine could be left unaided over the winter unless Congress acts in time. And with both the House and the Senate scheduled to go into recess at the end of this week for their Christmas break, very little time remains in which to act.

How is any of this happening? On past evidence, a clear majority of Senate Republicans sincerely want to help Ukraine. Probably about half of House Republicans do too. In a pair of procedural test votes in September, measures to cut or block aid to Ukraine drew, respectively, 104 and 117 Republican votes of the 221 then in the caucus.

The offer that President Joe Biden is making regarding the border represents a meaningful opening bid. The fundamental reason for America’s present border crisis is that would-be immigrants are trying to game the asylum system. The system is overwhelmed by the numbers claiming asylum. Even though the great majority of those claims will ultimately be rejected, their processing takes years, sometimes decades. In the meantime, most asylum seekers will be released into the United States. This makes claiming asylum a rational bet for would-be immigrants to try their luck, and millions of people are doing just that. The $14 billion of proposed additional funding would pay for some 1,600 new staff in the asylum system. New hires can speed up the process, reducing the incentive of de facto U.S. residency pending a claim’s hearing that attracts so many to seek asylum here.

Maybe the Biden administration’s budget proposal on immigration enforcement is not high enough. Asylum abuse might be checked by rejecting asylum seekers who passed through other safe countries on their way to the United States. (Such a policy has been in force in the European Union since 2013.) But in the multilateral negotiations among the White House and Republicans in both houses of Congress, the normal process of offer and counteroffer seems to have broken down altogether. I stress the word seems because getting clarity on the state of play is very difficult—as the response I received from the congressional staffer suggests.

On december 6, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer issued the following invitation to Republicans: Write an amendment detailing everything you want, and the Democratic Senate majority will let you bring it to the floor for a clean vote. That offer was rejected by Senate Republicans. How do you get to “yes” when the other side refuses to state its terms?

In a letter to Biden dated December 5, House Speaker Mike Johnson insisted that nothing less than “transformative” border policies would do. The House Republican vision is contained in a bill known as H.R. 2.

H.R. 2 is certainly transformative. It would rewrite the asylum system from top to bottom; it passed the House in May by the narrow margin of 219–213. All Democrats present plus two Republicans voted no. H.R. 2 is obviously going nowhere in the Senate. For that matter, it’s not at all clear that H.R. 2 would have commanded a majority in the House if there were any prospect of its becoming law. H.R. 2 was an easy vote to please the Fox News audience without any need to weigh potential negative consequences.

So how did this unpopular item become the absolutely indispensable precondition for a Ukraine aid deal?

As well as anyone not in the negotiating room can figure, the impasse on the Republican side is powered by four main impulses:

Playing to the gallery

A lot of House Republicans do not much care about enacting laws and solving problems. They are in Congress to strike poses and score television hits. They do not want to make deals. They want to position themselves as the one true conservative too pure for dealmaking. The only things they’re willing to say they want are the things they know to be impossible.

The politics of domination

On December 4, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas told reporters: “There’s a misunderstanding on the part of Senator Schumer and some of our Democratic friends. 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.” For many Republicans, what mattered was not what they got but how they got it: We demand, you comply; we win, you lose.

A deal, no matter how juicy, is less interesting to them than a ritual of submission. If they cannot enforce that ritual, they are not interested in any deal.

Intentional failure

The border is Biden’s single greatest political vulnerability. A recent NBC poll puts the Republican advantage on immigration at 18 points and border security at 30 points. Suppose Republicans did extract a big border concession in 2023; suppose they got everything they wanted. Then suppose their policy worked, and the flow of asylum seekers really did taper off dramatically in 2024. Would not the result of that success be only to strengthen Biden’s reelection chances and hurt Donald Trump’s? Maybe the reason Democrats are having so much difficulty getting to “yes” with Republicans is that many Republicans are committed to “no,” regardless of what the offer is.

Animosity toward Ukraine

The premise of much of the reporting about the negotiation is that Republicans sincerely care about the border and are using Ukraine and Israel as leverage in order to get their way on their higher priority. But for some Republicans, at least, stopping aid to Ukraine seems a priority in itself. A few actively subscribe to the pro-Putin politics of the far right. Others—including Speaker Johnson himself—started as supporters of Ukraine but have bent their view under the influence of anti-Ukraine party spirit. (Johnson supported the initial tranche of Ukraine aid in March 2022 but had defected to the anti-Ukraine side by May of that year.) Whatever each member’s motives and story are, the result has delivered them to the point where immigration-for-Ukraine no longer looks to them like a win-win deal.

The story’s not over yet. A last-minute reprieve for Ukraine and for the national honor of the United States may come through. Majorities in both the House and the Senate want this deal to happen. Significant counteroffers for immigration control are on the table, and agreement can surely be found. But the malign forces are strong, and they will not vanish on their own.

We’re headed to a “no” that will doom Ukraine and disgrace the U.S., while doing nothing to remedy the crisis at the border. A “yes” on both Ukraine and the border is still within reach, if only pro-Ukraine Republicans will press their colleagues to grasp it. If leadership was ever needed, it’s needed now.

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