“We’ve got to get right back to where we started from.” – Maxine Nightingale, 1976
There’s an old saying on Capitol Hill.
When you have the votes, you vote.
You do not vacillate. You do not dither. You do not tarry.
That said, it’s unclear whether the bipartisan coalition of Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., James Lankford, R-Okla., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., ever had the votes for their border security plan. We may never know. But one thing is for sure: it appears that their bill – even though it wasn’t finished – appeared to have a lot more votes and maybe could have passed in early January compared to February.
This is not to project blame on the trio who negotiated the bill. There are only so many factors the senators can control. Writing legislation is an arduous, tedious process. Murphy was a congressman and Senator-elect when a gunman shot up Sandy Hook Elementary School in his district in late 2012. He’s a veteran of punishing, laborious fights and debates over gun control. At one point during the border bill negotiation, Murphy declared that legislating about firearms was easy compared to grappling with legislation to fix the border.
But there were delays in releasing the bill text. Lankford speculated on Fox in early January that the release was days away.
He was only off by a month.
Two weeks ago, Sinema reiterated to reporters in a Senate hallway that they were very close to finishing the bill. But the senator said they were still pouring over the legislation, trying to make everything just so.
“We don’t like to have mistakes,” she said.
Border security and immigration occupy a complex, arcane province of the U.S. code. The negotiators commented many times that changing just a word here or there might trigger profound, unintended consequences. So one can also understand the need to work diligently to get things right.
Time was not on their side.
By contrast, time was on the side of the bill’s opponents.
And they worked the clock to their advantage.
The interregnum between when negotiators started crafting the bill and when they finally released legislative text created a narrative chasm for those intent on killing the bill. Opponents filled the vacuum with their own talking points about the then-unfinished legislation. They focused on a provision which they said would allow a minimum of 5,000 people to illegally enter the country per day. Lankford said that wasn’t true at all. Still, the allegations fired up the right-wing outrage machine. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., wasn’t privy to the negotiations, but the Speaker declared the bill “dead on arrival” in his chamber long before anyone ever saw the text.
You must define yourself or be defined in politics. The same is true with legislation. The Senate’s foot-dragging over the legislation enabled conservatives to define what the bill was – long before the bill’s authors could say what it wasn’t.
Dead on arrival?
Hardly. This bill was doomed before departure.
A handful of Democrats would likely oppose the bill. But the goal was to earn the support of half of all Senate Republicans. In other words, at least 25 of the 49 Senate GOPers. Lankford and others contended they were in that ballpark the day before the bill dropped. But hours later, Republican support dwindled to just a few senators.
The bill tanked.
This is ironic – because it was Senate Republicans who demanded Democrats prepare an earnest border security measure before they would even consider helping Ukraine. A bipartisan negotiation commenced. And then Republicans euthanized the effort.
Murphy was exasperated.
“The Republicans are a nightmarish mess right now,” lamented Murphy. “I have no idea whether Republicans want to vote on Ukraine. Border and Ukraine. Neither. This is not a great place for the Senate to be when the Republican caucus can’t figure out what they want.”
Certainly Democrats were willing to engage on border security. But the whole point of the supplemental spending request from President Biden last fall was to aid Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.
So while Democrats may find the state of affairs maddening, an international aid bill was what they always wanted. Meantime, everything on the Republican side of the aisle went haywire.
And don’t forget that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is perhaps the biggest advocate in either body for Ukraine. But McConnell uncharacteristically found himself in an awkward position. He failed to read the temperature of his conference. Moreover, there is arguably no Republican lawmaker who has more antipathy for former President Trump than the Minority Leader. Yet it was the efforts of the former president to undercut the border plan which prevailed. McConnell lost.
It may be surprising that it’s taken this long for MAGA-aligned senators to start to rip their leader. But this is what McConnell now faces. Conservatives – from old tea party loyalists to those linked today to former President Trump – long made things difficult for former House Speakers John Boehner, Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy. Now McConnell faces the same issues.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., has fought publicly with McConnell over the years. Cruz told Fox News’ Aishah Hasnie it was time for McConnell to go. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., leveled even more specific criticisms about McConnell when also speaking with Hasnie.
“He doesn’t talk to his members. He doesn’t listen to his members. He doesn’t talk to his members. He’s so focused on (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy,” said Hawley. “Is it any wonder that Republicans are up in arms and they finally see it? It’s an interesting leadership style. I’ll tell you that.”
McConnell owes much of his success as the longest serving Senate party leader in U.S. history to holding his cards close to his vest. But the hand McConnell is now playing may not work in his favor. McConnell suffered multiple health episodes last year. Former President Trump would love to dump McConnell if he returns to the White House. Another health issue – coupled with Mr. Trump’s hostility for McConnell – could spell doom for the Kentucky Republican.
But, in the short-term, McConnell might get what he wanted in the first place: aid to Ukraine.
Don’t forget, the original bill was supposed to be about helping Ukraine, Israel and Taiwain. The border bill disintegrated almost as quickly as it was released. There are radioactive isotopes which hold together longer than the bipartisan border bill.
That brings us, in the words of ‘70s crooner Maxine Nightingale, to right back where we started from.
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