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Top Dem in immigration talks says Republicans are ignoring border chaos to help Trump

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the Democrats' chief negotiator on the border security talks, speaks to reporters at the Capitol in December.
J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the Democrats' chief negotiator on the border security talks, speaks to reporters at the Capitol in December.

Updated February 6, 2024 at 11:53 AM ET

The Democrats' lead negotiator on a $118 billion bipartisan national security bill says GOP effortsto tank the bill are not based on its merits, but an effort to support former President Donald Trump's reelection bid.

"Right now most Republicans are prepared to listen to Donald Trump, who says he wants chaos to continue at the border because that will help him politically," Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told Morning Edition's Michel Martin.

At least two dozen GOP senators are casting doubt on the chances of the $118 billion bill, which would result in the most significant change to U.S. immigration law in some four decades.

It includes some roughly $20 billion for border provisions, including funding for the border wall and more asylum judges. And it would also fund humanitarian aid for Ukraine, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The deal is the result of months of tense negotiations, which began last fall after House Republicans insisted they would only support foreign aid if it was paired with policies to address a record influx of migrants at the U.S. border with Mexico.

"We did exactly what Republicans told us to do," Murphy said. "We got a bipartisan border reform bill, a historic one. And now those same Republicans are saying that they are going to oppose the bill that they asked for because Donald Trump wants chaos at the border."

Immigration is shaping up to be a key issue in the 2024 presidential election, as border crossings reach new heights. Trump — the Republican primary frontrunner — has blamed Biden's policies for the border crisis, and recent polls show that voters have more confidence in Trump's ability to fix it.

Murphy said that Republicans blocking the bill would make the border less secure, for Trump's political benefit.

"I think that is a terrible outcome for the country," Murphy said. "I think it makes us weaker. I think it makes our border less secure. But it's also a terrible political decision by Republicans because this country will see it for what it is, a decision to keep the country unsafe just because Donald Trump benefits from chaos."

He said Americans agree that immigration is a crisis, with as many 10,000 migrants crossing into the country some days and many winding up on the streets and in homeless shelters.

"They don't want this issue to be used as a permanent political cudgel," Murphy said of voters. "They want us to solve the problem."

The bill has many Republican critics, and some Democratic critics

Trump and House Republicans had been pressuring the Senate to block the bill even before its details were made public on Sunday, believing it would be a political victory for President Biden.

House Speaker Mike Johnson has since called it "dead on arrival," while Trump slammed it on Truth Social as a "great gift to the Democrats, and a Death Wish for The Republican Party."

Senate Republicans left an animated party meeting late Monday in agreement that they need more time to parse the 370-page bill and discuss potential amendments. They are scheduled to hold a procedural vote on Wednesday, in which they will either move toward debating the legislation or put it on the back burner indefinitely. It needs 60 votes to pass.

"[Republicans] can still work with us and get this bill passed through the Senate," Murphy said. "They've got to make that decision in the next 24 to 48 hours."

The bill needs the support of the majority of both Republicans and Democrats. And not all Senate Democrats are on board.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Progressive Caucus have criticized the bill for being too tough on migrants and lacking key Democratic priorities, such as a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.

Murphy said a "handful" of Democrats will likely vote against the bill, but suggested that's par for the course in such bipartisan negotiations.

"Washington is kind of unfamiliar with an old-fashioned compromise that involves some Democrats voting no and some Republicans voting no," Murphy said. "But that's what we've done here. We are taking an issue that has long divided America and finding middle ground."

What the bill could mean for U.S. and global security

The bill would allow the president to shut down parts of the border when daily border approaches spike, shorten the time frame for processing asylum claims to six months and increase legal pathways for immigration, Murphy said.

"Over the next five years, it would open up about 250,000 new visas — both family and work visas — to come to the United States," he added.

And it would deliver on the foreign humanitarian aid that Biden requested last year, kicking off the whole process. The bill would provide $14 billion to Israel, and $10 billion to civilians in Gaza, the West Bank and other populations in conflict zones.

Murphy said one of Republicans' conditions was that none of that money go to UNRWA, the main U.N. relief agency in Gaza. The U.S. and several other countries have paused funding for the agency after Israel alleged that a dozen of its employees participated in the Oct. 7 attack.

"There are many other groups like the Red Crescent that are operating effectively inside Gaza," Murphy said. "And we will get money to people who need it."

The bill also includes $60 billion in military aid for Ukraine. After nearly two years of war and tens of billions of dollars in funding, U.S. support for aid to Ukraine has diminished considerably. Most House Republicans, and many Republican voters, are opposed to giving Ukraine more money, even as the presidents of both countries warn that it's running out.

The European Union announced last week it had reached a deal to include the equivalent of $54 billion in funding for Ukraine in its budget in the next three years, in a welcome boost.

Making the case for continued aid to Ukraine, Murphy said the post-WWII world order ("in which big nations don't get to expand their borders by invading smaller nations") is at stake, adding that the U.S. has benefited greatly from it.

And he warned that if Russian President Vladimir Putin wins in Ukraine, he could potentially set his sights on a NATO country, which could put U.S. service members at risk.

"This is just a very important preventative step to stop the United States from getting dragged into an absolutely disastrous war," he said. "[It's] a pretty cheap investment in our security and global security."

The broadcast interview was produced by Ben Abrams and edited by Olivia Hampton.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.