Fresh US Senate Israel-Ukraine bill faces Republican buzzsaw

AFP , Monday 5 Feb 2024

US senators on Sunday released the text of a much-anticipated deal that would unlock billions in new aid for Ukraine and Israel while tightening US border laws, but the top House Republican quickly vowed to shoot it down.

House Speaker Mike Johnson of La., speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 2024, in Washington. AP


The national security supplemental provides for $118.3 billion in total funding, including $60 billion to support war-torn Ukraine, matching the White House's request, and $14.1 billion in security assistance to Israel, according to a summary released by Senate Appropriations Committee chair Patty Murray.

The legislation also includes $20.2 billion for US border security and a myriad of immigration policy changes agreed to by Democratic and Republican negotiators.

Most significantly, it would give President Joe Biden the power to reject asylum seekers if illegal border crossings reached over 5,000 per week -- a figure breached multiple times in recent months.

"Biden would immediately use this authority -- which would mean people coming across the border are generally ineligible for asylum -- if crossings were at current levels," a White House official told reporters late Sunday.

It is not clear that the 370-page bill has the 60 backers it will need to advance from the first procedural vote in the 100-seat, Democratic-controlled Senate, expected on Wednesday at the latest.

Its prospects, or lack thereof, are clearer in the Republican-controlled House, with Speaker Mike Johnson quickly saying it would be "dead on arrival" in its current form.

Senators have been negotiating for months on the deal to combat illegal immigration, with Republicans insisting on bolstered border security in return for approving Biden's funding request for Kyiv.

Biden said in a statement he strongly supports the deal, which would help Ukraine "defend itself against Russia's aggression" and "includes the toughest and fairest set of border reforms in decades."

He urged Republicans -- who have been pressured by White House hopeful Donald Trump to oppose the deal -- to get behind the bipartisan package.

"If you believe, as I do, that we must secure the border now, doing nothing is not an option," he said.

'Detain and deport' 

Biden ran on restoring "humanity" to immigration -- ending controversial Trump-era policies that led to families being separated at the US-Mexico border.

But Republicans dismiss his term as a failure, pointing to statistics showing border agents picking up illegal migrants a record 302,000 times in December.

"This bill is even worse than we expected, and won't come close to ending the border catastrophe the President has created," Johnson said Sunday on X, formerly Twitter.

For months, polling has shown Americans see the migrant crisis among their top concerns -- and mostly blame Democrats for the surge.

The immigration reform that ended up in the bill were described by both sides as constituting the strictest border policy changes in recent memory.

"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to close our open border and give future administrations the effective tools they need to stop the border chaos and protect our nation," Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, the lead Republican negotiator, said in a statement.

He said the bill would put "a huge number of new enforcement tools in the hands of a future administration" and change US policy from "catch and release," which allows undocumented migrants to remain at liberty as they await court appearances, to "detain and deport."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called the legislation "a monumental step," and cautioned Republicans against the knee-jerk reaction of trying to sink it simply because Trump opposes it.

"Senators must shut out the noise from those who want this agreement to fail for their own political agendas," Schumer said.

Trump -- who is close to securing the Republican presidential nomination and is desperate to prevent Biden scoring a legislative win -- has spoken out loudly against the bill.

"As the leader of our party, there is zero chance I will support this horrible open borders betrayal of America," Trump, said in a recent speech in Las Vegas.

If the deal falls short in either chamber Democrats will argue that the Republicans, having spent two years assailing Biden over the surge in migrant crossings, have dropped a major priority simply to pander to Trump's White House ambitions.


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