WASHINGTON — Tempers flared Thursday as Republicans battled among themselves over whether to accept or reject a deal for tougher immigration laws, with some pushing back on colleagues who want to bow to former President Donald Trump's wishes and kill it.
“The border is a very important issue for Donald Trump. And the fact that he would communicate to Republican senators and Congress people that he doesn’t want us to solve the border problem — because he wants to blame Biden for it — is really appalling,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told reporters.
“The American people are suffering as a result of what’s happening at the border,” he said. “And someone running for president ought to try and get the problem solved, as opposed to saying, ‘Hey, save that problem! Don’t solve it! Let me take credit for solving it later.’”
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., urged his colleagues not to make it all about politics at the behest of another candidate.
“I didn’t come here to have the president as a boss or a candidate as a boss. I came here to pass good, solid policy," Tillis said. “It is immoral for me to think you looked the other way because you think this is the linchpin for President Trump to win.”
Their comments came one day after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in a private GOP meeting, outlined the political difficulties facing the emerging deal on immigration and foreign aid, including opposition from Trump as he cruises to the Republican presidential nomination. The belief among some conservatives is that preventing an agreement will cause voters to blame President Joe Biden for a chaotic situation at the border, even though he has endorsed the negotiations.
Trump's campaign declined to comment for this article. He has lambasted the deal on his social media platform, writing that Republicans should not "do a Border Deal, at all, unless we get EVERYTHING."
While senators said McConnell made clear Thursday he wasn't withdrawing his support for the pact, some insist the party should reject it because it doesn't go far enough in sealing the border. The deal has not been finalized as congressional appropriators work through the funding provisions.
“I want a negotiation that will actually secure the border, where they can’t weasel out of it, they can’t drive a semi-truck through loopholes that are created in it,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told reporters. “What Senate leadership hasn’t been able to describe is how the current negotiation, the elements that have been laid out for us, how that actually would work.”
Johnson and a group of GOP senators held a press conference Wednesday blasting the deal, with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who faces re-election this fall, calling it “utterly ineffective in fixing the problem” because it would only partially bring down the numbers of asylum-seekers. He called the deal “a fig leaf that pretends to do border security but doesn’t actually do border security.”
'Resign from the damn Senate'
Cruz’s likely Democratic opponent this fall, Rep. Colin Allred, praised the “emerging bipartisan deal,” saying in a statement that “Texans desperately need us to take action” on the border crisis. “But once again, Ted Cruz is not interested in finding solutions, only partisan politics. Our border communities are overwhelmed, and can’t afford six more years of Ted Cruz and his cynical, partisan games.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, of Connecticut, the chief Democratic negotiator, said it “shouldn’t be a shock to anybody that Donald Trump doesn’t want to fix the border” because he and “a lot of Republicans” are used to seeing it as “a political issue, not an actual policy problem.”
“They are making a decision in the next 24 to 48 hours as to whether they want to solve the problem at the border or whether they just want to keep it live as a political issue,” he said.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who faces re-election in a red state seen as crucial to the majority in 2024, had a one-word response when asked to respond to the GOP push to sink the deal: “Bull-loney.”
“I think it’s crap,” Tester told NBC News. “We need to get that deal done to secure the border. If they want to keep it as a campaign issue, I think they need to resign from the damn Senate.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, another red-state Democrat facing re-election, said: “They need to put politics aside and do this. The public wants it. They say they want it. We want it.”
The fate of the deal looms over Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona Democrat-turned-independent, who is one of the lead negotiators and hasn’t decided whether she’ll run for re-election this fall.
Polls show her trailing against the likely Democratic and Republican nominees in a hypothetical three-way race. Securing a deal could give her a campaign message to voters in a border state as she seeks to cultivate an image as a bridge-builder between the parties.
Asked about Trump’s attempts to kill the deal, Sinema said: “I don’t really have a comment on that. Look, we’re at a place where this package is almost done. And when the text comes out, senators will be able to review it and make their own decision. Do they want to secure the border? It’s a choice.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., adjourned the chamber on Thursday afternoon, vowing that Democrats remain committed to the deal and that “negotiators will work all weekend in an effort to get this done.”
While Democrats control the Senate 51-49, it would require 60 votes to break a guaranteed filibuster. And even then, there are no guarantees it can pass in a Republican-controlled House.
“There are a good number of people for whom border security is too good an issue to give up,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. “And I do reject that. I’ve always rejected the notion that perfect has to be the standard."
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., inveighed against the immigration negotiations and said many Republicans are “just completely in the dark” about the details. He added that he spoke to Trump recently, but that they didn’t discuss border policy or Ukraine.
“He talks about his election,” Scott said.