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Biden advisers ready to go on offense in the immigration fight after the bipartisan border bill's demise

The White House is accelerating plans to blast Republicans for tanking a bipartisan measure that was far to the right of anything Democrats had supported on immigration in the past.
President Joe Biden walks along a stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas on Jan. 8, 2023.
President Joe Biden walks along a stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, on Jan. 8, 2023.Andrew Harnik / AP file

LAS VEGAS — President Joe Biden would have preferred to sign a bipartisan border bill despite criticism from his left and right flanks, seeing it as an imperfect solution to the immigration crisis.

But with the compromise bill falling apart before it even hit the Senate floor, Biden advisers say they may have the next best thing: a political cudgel to allow him finally to go on offense on what has been one of his biggest political vulnerabilities.

“This ends one of two ways. One, the strongest border legislation in decades passes and everyone wins — most importantly, the American people. Or two, MAGA Republicans kill this breakthrough for expressly political reasons … in which case, the American people lose and the Republicans who opposed it get blasted every time they say ‘border’ for years,” one adviser said.

Biden's likely opponent in the fall, former President Donald Trump, has made immigration and the border his signature issue since entering presidential politics in 2015, making it a difficult front to try to gain ground for the Democrat. But Biden and his allies finally see an opening to go on offense against Republicans, instead of playing defense.

The work of crafting the compromise was largely, if not entirely, done by lawmakers on Capitol Hill. But the Biden administration offered both technical advice and a quick and fulsome endorsement as it came together, with the president promising to sign the bill and immediately act on one of the new tools it offered — to temporarily close the border.

Officials felt that a Senate debate would take some time to play out but were cautiously optimistic that it would move to the House. Last week, they began executing a strategy to build pressure on GOP leaders there to bring the measure to a vote. 

Now, the bill may not get that far, so the White House is accelerating plans to blast not just House Republicans, but also the party more broadly for tanking a measure that was far to the right of anything Democrats had before — or likely will again — support on immigration.

It started with Biden forcefully rebuking Republicans on Tuesday ahead of a key test vote for the Senate bill, saying they were acting on Trump’s behalf rather than the voters they serve.

“I understand the former president is desperately trying to stop this bill, because he’s not interested in solving the border problem. He wants a political issue to run against me,” Biden said. 

He said that if the bill fails, “the American people are going to know that the only reason the border is not secure is Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican friends,” and that he would take that case to the country.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told reporters Tuesday that he didn't believe Democrats were acting in good faith and that they simply wanted a political issue to use against Republicans. He called the bill “political camouflage for Democrats running in November.”

“The objective of this bill was, No. 1, to do nothing ... to secure the border but to let every Democrat running for office say, 'Gosh, I wanted to secure the border, but those mean Republicans wouldn’t let us,'" he said. "This is all about talking points to deceive the voters. We’re already seeing Democrat candidates across the country repeating that ‘I was ready to secure the border, but the Republicans didn’t.’ It’s an utter lie."

Officials have also discussed Biden's using his State of the Union address to rebuke Republicans for failing to support the bill, said a source familiar with the matter. Such a statement could provoke the kind of response from lawmakers in the chamber that Biden seized on last year when he criticized them for supporting cuts to retirement programs, a high-profile moment that illustrated a policy debate in which the Biden team felt it had the upper hand with voters.

Another Biden adviser said that part of the motivation is not about the issue itself, but in helping to illustrate who bears responsibility for one of voters’ biggest concerns: gridlock. Already, the White House was eyeing the State of the Union address as an opportunity to contrast significant accomplishments during two years of Democratic control of Washington with the House GOP’s governing challenges.

“This is an issue that epitomizes frustration with Washington,” the adviser said. “It shows there’s no interest in governing" by Republicans.

A new NBC News poll shows that Trump had a 35-point advantage over Biden on the issue of securing the border and controlling immigration. Biden had a 17-point advantage on protecting immigrant rights, but his support for the border compromise drew criticism from Latino leaders and immigrant rights groups.

The Biden campaign, though, has argued that the economy, health care and increasingly gun safety are the top issues among Latino voters, and that Trump returning to hard anti-immigrant rhetoric will cost him with that group.

“I’m confident from the data I have seen that if immigration becomes an issue, it’s one that the Democrats will win on with Latinos,” said Matt Barreto, a Democratic pollster who advised the Biden 2020 campaign on Latino voters.  

Barreto cited research that Trump’s improved performance among some minority groups in 2020 was driven in part because the Republicans focused more on the economic disruption of the Covid pandemic, which hit those communities particularly hard.

"Donald Trump is not going to be able to say Joe Biden has not addressed the border issue,” Barreto said. "It is the Republican House majority which at this point is refusing to do anything."

"It’s very smart of the White House to keep the pressure on House Republicans and continue to talk about getting solutions for Dreamers, for farmworkers and other groups that are already here … and contributing to this country,” he said, referring to the undocumented immigrants who came to America as children.