WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has said his work to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia is among his signature accomplishments, but now the fate of funding America's ally has become enmeshed with the most vexing policy challenge he’s faced in office: immigration.
As the negotiations have played out on Capitol Hill, the White House has tried to paint themselves as uninvolved in the messy and complicated process of negotiating a legislative deal.
But those familiar with the behind-the-scenes maneuvering reveal that Biden aides are deeply and directly involved in trying to guide the process and shape an outcome to Biden's liking.
“I am willing to make significant compromises on the border,” Biden said in remarks on Wednesday. “We need to fix our broken border system. It is broken. And thus far, I’ve gotten no response” from Republicans.
Immigration advocates warn that Biden risks looking so desperate for Ukraine aid that he is willing to placate Republicans by bargaining away the basic rights of migrants looking to escape horrendous conditions at home for a better life in the U.S.
But if Biden manages to wrest a bipartisan compromise that succeeds in curbing illegal border crossings, he can address a vulnerability that hinders his chances of re-election. NBC News polling shows that Republicans have erased the Democrats' advantage in recent years and now hold an 18-point lead when it comes to the handling of immigration. A deal that shows progress in fortifying the border could potentially win over moderate and independent voters who blame Biden for images of migrants sleeping on city sidewalks with no place to go.
"The president can still turn this around," said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, whose district includes the border.
On Wednesday, Republicans blocked the Senate from advancing a bill written by the Biden administration that would provide Ukraine aid and approve money to support Israel and Taiwan. That bill would have also strengthened border enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border, including 1,000 new border patrol agents; 1,600 asylum officers to hear migrant claims; and enhanced technology to track the flow of goods at ports of entry.
In an address Wednesday before the Senate vote, Biden said he has been reasonable and remains open to compromising with Republicans when it comes to stricter border policies, a move that could put him at odds with some of his base who view tougher asylum laws as synonymous with Trump-era policies.
"It doesn't help politically because it doesn't help with the contrast that we want to make," said Vanessa Cardenas, executive director of America's Voice, a pro-immigration advocacy group.
"As advocates, it's hard to make the point when you have Trump-lite policies," said Cardenas, who worked on Biden's 2020 presidential campaign.
One immigration advocate close to the talks said in an interview that White House officials have told them “they weren’t involved at all and they had nothing to do with it.”
“But then, we were hearing from Senate offices that they [White House officials] were calling them every day,” the advocate added, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
An advantage in keeping a low profile from Biden's standpoint is that if lawmakers strike a border deal that liberal voters decide is too strict, he can argue that he was not the architect and should be spared any blame, said a Democratic strategist who is close to the Biden administration.
“They’re doing that because they know it’s going to come back and bite them afterward with their own folks — with the [immigration] advocates and the people they need for electoral purposes,” the strategist said. “But the issue is that these [border policies being negotiated] are completely rotten and people are starting to get pissed off.”
'A rush to legislation'
Inside the White House, Homeland Security Adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall, deputy chief of staff Natalie Quillian and Domestic Policy Council Director Neera Tanden have been trying to determine what additional immigration policy changes are necessary to get the bill over the finish line in the Senate.
The White House did not make officials involved in the talks available for comment. A White House aide referred to press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre's comments at a press briefing on Wednesday when asked for comment.
"A strong bipartisan majority of Congress supports Ukraine in its fight against Putin’s brutal war," Jean-Pierre said. "Unfortunately, some Republicans are now holding urgently needed Ukraine funding hostage to a set of completely unrelated ... border demands. Instead of negotiating in good faith, as a group of Democrats and Republicans have been doing for some weeks now, they're doubling down on an all-or-nothing approach."
The White House has called Democratic senators to press their case for a border deal to advance the aid package, said a source familiar with the matter, who added: “They were the ones pushing for it.”
Biden also spoke directly with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., about Ukraine funding before Thanksgiving. McConnell has publicly agreed that funding Ukraine remains an urgent priority. But under pressure from his right flank that insisted on tying Ukraine funding to immigration limits, McConnell has embraced the view that Biden must link them, suggesting it’s both good policy and also in his political interests.
“This is an opportunity,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday. “Honestly, if I were the president, looking at my numbers on this, I’d want to do something about it. It might actually improve his position.”
Both Biden and McConnell face internal party pressures. If Biden complies with Republican demands, he risks alienating pro-immigration progressives and Hispanic advocacy groups who describe the conservative proposals as an attempt to shut down legal pathways to the U.S. And if he rebuffs the GOP and holds firm, he could lose all Republican support and tank the aid package that he says is necessary to keep Ukraine in the fight.
Part of Biden’s dilemma is his lack of obvious GOP negotiating partners. He and his White House have no history with recently elevated Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La. And though Biden has cut deals with McConnell in the past, their long history together means less today than it once did as the Kentucky Republican’s influence within his party diminishes as MAGA forces flex more power.
The White House has latched onto one proposal that appears to enjoy bipartisan support on Capitol Hill: toughening the "credible fear" standard that migrants use to make their case to an officer for asylum when they arrive at the border, the immigration advocate familiar with the negotiations said.
Currently, when migrants appear at the border and claim asylum under the “credible fear” standard, the main criteria used to decide if one can remain in the U.S. and continue through the process is whether there is a significant possibility that subsequent hearings will determine they face persecution in their home country or a fear of it.
The White House has agreed to GOP requests to make the standard tougher and has been “lobbying” Democratic senators to go along, the source said. “The White House does want that because they think it will help them turn more people away,” the source said.
“I am concerned that there is a rush to legislation in response to Republicans holding Ukraine aid hostage,” the source added.
If Republicans agreed that changing the standard was enough, the bill would "pass tomorrow," the source said. But many Republicans, including in the House, argue that it isn't enough of a concession from the administration, the source said.
Those Republicans say they also want sharp limits on the president's powers to grant humanitarian parole in asylum cases — the provision that allows the executive to temporarily admit foreign nationals due to an emergency.
Missteps and 'missed opportunities'
The Democratic strategist close to the administration noted Biden is already seeing slippage with Muslim voters because of fallout from the Israel-Hamas war, and support among Black voters that is well short of where it needs to be.
“The Biden administration has taken some positive steps on immigration overall, but it’s a mixed record including some missteps on the border and missed opportunities to provide clarity on messaging," said Janet Murguia, president of UnidosUS, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization.
Biden expressed his frustration behind closed doors Tuesday, telling supporters at a fundraiser in Boston that Republicans are holding up Ukraine aid unless “we follow the most draconian actions possible to keep migrants out of America.”
“I don’t think they want to solve it,” he said of the nation’s migration challenges. “I think they want to keep it as a problem without the tools to make it any better.”
An administration source close to the deliberations said that Biden hasn’t shied from making tough decisions on immigration policy that aren’t always popular with his political base. This person also noted that the politics of the issue have “shifted” some in his party, as Democratic mayors and governors have been outspoken in calling for tougher policy as well.
On Thursday, lawmakers said talks had resumed.
“They are back at the table. Negotiations are back,” a Democratic source said. “Republicans presented us a proposal, we are still digesting it, there is still a lot of daylight between the two sides.”
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said Tuesday the White House should be more publicly involved, including summoning negotiators to the White House.
“I think it’s not surprising that we’re getting to a point where this is going to be negotiated at the highest level of the White House and here in the Senate as well,” he said.