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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Lauren Gambino in Washington

Senate Republicans block bipartisan border security bill for a second time

People stand near the border wall at Ciudad Juárez in Mexico
Migrants near the border wall at Ciudad Juárez in Mexico. Photograph: José Luis González/Reuters

Senate Republicans blocked a bipartisan border security bill for a second time, part of an attempt by Chuck Schumer to flip the script on immigration – a major political liability for Joe Biden and Democrats in this year’s election.

The 43-50 vote was far short of the necessary 60 votes needed to advance the legislation. Republicans, who have repeatedly demanded Democrats act on the border, abandoned the compromise proposal at the behest of Donald Trump who saw it was a political “gift” for Biden’s re-election chances.

In bringing the proposal to the floor, Democrats hoped the doomed effort would underline their argument that Republicans are not serious about addressing the situation at the US border with Mexico, an issue that polls show is a major concern among voters.

“To those who’ve said for years Congress needs to act on the border,” said Schumer, the Senate majority leader, in a floor speech before the vote. “This bipartisan bill is the answer, and it’s time show we’re serious about fixing the problem.”

Democrats had spent the days leading up to Thursday vote hammering the message that the president and his party are trying to solve the issue, but have been thwarted by Republicans following Trump’s lead.

“Congressional Republicans do not care about securing the border or fixing America’s broken immigration system,” Biden said in a statement. “If they did, they would have voted for the toughest border enforcement in history.”

Biden trails Trump in national and battleground-state surveys. Voters trust the former president over Biden to tackle the border issue by a wide margin, according to several recent surveys, with immigration often ranking as a top concern.

In February, after months of negotiations, a bipartisan group of senators had unveiled an immigration compromise – legislation Republicans said was necessary to unlock their support for a foreign aid package that included assistance to Ukraine.

The legislation, which would have made major changes to immigration law and received endorsements from the National Border Patrol Council and the US Chamber of Commerce, initially appeared to have the support to pass. But then Trump denounced the plan as weak and demanded his allies in the Senate abandon it. They quickly followed his lead.

When it came to the floor, the measure failed in a 50-49 vote, far short of the 60 ayes needed to move forward. All but four Republicans opposed it. They were joined by a group of liberal and Latino Democrats who argued that the approach was too punitive and failed to include relief for immigrants who have lived and worked in the US for years.

“The Senate border bill once again fails to meet the moment by putting forth enforcement-only policies and failing to include provisions that will keep families together,” the Congressional Hispanic Caucus said in a statement this week, urging a vote against the bill, which none of its members were involved in negotiating. They called on Congress to pass legislation to protect Dreamers, immigrants who were brought to the US as children, and to expand work visas.

No Republican voted for the bill this time around. Instead Republicans accused Schumer of holding a “show vote”, aimed at protecting Democrats’ narrow majority ahead of this year’s election.

“This is not trying to accomplish something. This is about messaging now,” Senator James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican who helped negotiate the border deal, said earlier this week. “This is trying to poke Republicans rather than try to actually solve a problem.”

Kyrsten Sinema, an independent from Arizona who negotiated the compromise with Lankford, also opposed Schumer’s move, which she called an act of “political theater”.

“To use this failure as a political punching bag only punishes those who were courageous enough to do the hard work in the first place,” she said in a floor speech on Thursday.

Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah, both Republican senators, also changed their vote, opposing the measure after supporting it in February. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was the lone Republican senator to vote in favor of advancing the bill.

But the bill also lost support from Democrats, among them Cory Booker, the senator of New Jersey, and Laphonza Butler of California. The liberal senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Alex Padilla of California again voted against it.

In a statement, Booker said he voted for the bill in February in part because it included “critical foreign and humanitarian aid”, which was passed as a standalone package last month.

“I remain committed to pursuing commonsense, bipartisan legislation to modernize our immigration system so that it aligns with our most fundamental values,” he said.

The White House had lobbied Republicans in advance of the vote. Biden on Monday spoke to the House speaker, Mike Johnson, and Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, urging them to “stop playing politics and act quickly to pass this bipartisan border legislation”, according to a White House summary of the conversations.

“You caused this problem,” McConnell said he told Biden during their call, while urging the president to reinstate Trump-era immigration policies. “Why don’t you just allow what the previous administration was doing?” McConnell said he told the president.

Since the bill’s failure in February, Biden has taken a series of executive actions to stem the flow of migration and speed up the asylum process, which can take months or even years. But the administration has maintained there are limits to what the president can do unilaterally.

“Only Congress can fix our broken immigration system,” the homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, said in a statement after the vote. “I urge Congress to do so. In the meantime, we will continue to enforce the law with full force with the limited resources we have.”

In advance of the vote, Schumer repeatedly acknowledged that he did not expect all 51 members of the Democratic caucus to support it. Johnson had already declared it “dead on arrival”.

In a statement, the speaker called the procedural vote an “election year Hail Mary” by Democrats and said the onus was on the president to “use his executive authority to finally secure the border and protect American families”.

The measure was designed to clamp down on illegal border crossings, which reached record levels last year, though the overall numbers have dropped in recent months. Among its provisions, the bill proposes provisions that would make it more difficult to seek asylum in the United States, while expanding detention facilities and speeding up the deportation process for those who enter the country unlawfully.

It would also institute a new emergency authority that would in effect close the border if the number of migrants encountered by immigration officials averaged more than 4,000 people a day at the border over the course of one week. The authority would be triggered automatically if the average surpassed 5,000 a day or if 8,500 try to enter unlawfully in a single day.

Democrats have emphasized the aspects of the bill they say would curtail fentanyl smuggling, which has led to a drug overdose epidemic that is killing tens of thousands of Americans each year. Despite Republican claims, illicit opioids are overwhelmingly smuggled over the border by US citizens, not migrants.

The White House spokesman Andrew Bates wrote in a memo released on the eve of the vote: “Congressional Republicans have to choose: will they again decide that politics is more important than stopping fentanyl traffickers and saving the lives of innocent constituents? Joe Biden knows where he stands.”

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