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Senate immigration negotiators see a ray of hope as clock ticks on Biden's aid package

But the key players all caution that there's no agreement yet and difficult issues remain to unlocking a deal on the border, as well as aid for Ukraine and Israel.
Sen. James Lankford.
Sen. James Lankford has been leading negotiations for the GOP.Amanda Andrade-Rhoades / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — A flurry of activity in the last 24 hours has injected some fresh hope into Senate immigration negotiations, according to key lawmakers and sources with knowledge of the talks, who also caution that there is still no agreement.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said both the White House and Republicans have made significant movements in their positions and that the discussions have grown more “productive” because “all the players are at the same table sitting down actually talking through how to solve this.”

“There are some hard issues that are still on the table," Lankford said Wednesday afternoon after giving Senate Republicans an update on talks at a lunch meeting. “But I think we’ve got serious people on all sides … trying to figure out how to resolve these.”

Lankford is working with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., and top White House staff to try and hammer out a solution to toughen asylum laws and restrict parole authorities for immigration cases. In addition, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have gotten involved in the talks, along with the Department of Homeland Security, sources with knowledge said.

Schumer and McConnell met privately in the majority leader's office early afternoon on Wednesday. The two discussed the funding package, Schumer's spokesperson said.

The sluggish pace of talks in previous days had sparked pessimism among the negotiators, who are now striking a different tone.

“My hope is that we can all agree to stay until we get this done,” Murphy told reporters. “We made progress yesterday. We’re gonna continue to try to make progress today."

Republicans maintain that an immigration deal is essential to securing their votes to pass aid for Ukraine and Israel, a top priority for President Joe Biden. To prove their point, Senate GOP lawmakers unanimously voted to filibuster the funding package last week, and they said Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's visit to Capitol Hill on Tuesday didn't change their mind.

Workers clean debris from the site of a destroyed hangar.
Workers clean debris from the site of a destroyed hangar following a Russian attack in Odesa, Ukraine, on Wednesday.Roman Pilipey / AFP via Getty Images

A Democratic source familiar with the talks said progress has been made over the last 24 hours but warned that there was not yet an agreement or even a framework in principle.

With Congress scheduled to break for recess until 2024 at the end of this week, there's no guarantee that the two parties will secure a deal in the Senate. And even if they pass it, it's not clear it would get through the Republican-controlled House, where Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has insisted on a more aggressive package of immigration restrictions demanded by conservative hardliners. Lankford said he's keeping Johnson apprised of developments but that there was no Senate pact for the speaker to weigh in on yet.

A senior administration official said Biden is consistently being briefed on the negotiations and will further engage personally once there’s a clearer framework of an agreement. The official acknowledged there will be political blowback to a bipartisan compromise on certain border policy issues but said Biden is willing to take the heat to get the deal done because the immigration system is “broken” and the issue needs to be addressed urgently.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was on Capitol Hill Wednesday evening to participate in the talks, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Achieving bipartisan agreement on the finer details of a bill is seen in the Senate as crucial to the viability of any deal, given the operational complexities and political sensitivity of the policies at hand. Until then, it won’t be easy for senators to announce any agreement. But the challenges will only grow early next year, between the upcoming government funding deadlines in January and February as well as the political dynamics of an election year.

On Wednesday, Sinema briefed lawmakers in the House's bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus on the status of negotiations in her private Senate hideaway, four sources with knowledge of the meeting said.

Emerging from the meeting, Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., sounded upbeat that an immigration deal wasn't far off.

“Not there totally, but they’re close,” he said, adding that Republicans in the group trust their Senate counterpart to strike a deal. “Lankford’s kicking some ass,” he said.

The movement toward a potential deal has raised hackles among pro-immigration progressives and Hispanic Caucus members, who say they fear the pact would impose harsh conditions on migrants that contradict Biden's campaign promises. CHC members have pressed Biden for an "emergency" meeting to discuss the issue, which still has not happened. They spoke Wednesday outside the Capitol to express their displeasure.

“Imagine the administration trying to cut a deal on voting rights or civil rights without bringing any members of the Congressional Black Caucus to the table. That would never be tolerated. And we absolutely cannot tolerate this either,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who is under federal indictment for allegedly accepting bribes from Egypt and conspiring to act as a foreign agent. (He has denied the charges and pleaded not guilty).

Lankford and Murphy both declined to comment on some of the provisions being negotiated, including an expansion of expulsion authorities and migrant detention to try to control the border. Asked if there’s a path to resolving the logjam on parole, Lankford said only that it's a delicate balance because turning the dials on one policy provision will impact others in the deal.

“Once we actually get to an agreement, then we’ll say, okay, it’s all done," Lankford said. "You deal with border security and all the issues that are related to it — really, everything is interrelated. So if this doesn’t work, then that also means that has to be out. I mean, all of those pieces have to fit.”

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., questioned whether the Senate has “enough time to process” a deal even if it comes together soon.

“You still got to write it out and nobody’s written anything up. These are all concepts right now,” he said. “And nobody, I don’t think, has even determined who’s got the pens right now and who’s in the room. The deal has not come together.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, warned that it may be risky for the Senate to pass a bill and leave town, “because it’ll be a pinata out there that people take potshots at for the next couple of weeks.”

“Just a practical concern,” he said.