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Senate GOP blocks bill to address border crisis after pushing for one for months

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Republicans in Congress have not had their most productive week. Some negotiated a bipartisan bill to address one of their top priorities, immigration. Other Republicans objected and said they did not want the bill that they wanted. The party leader, Donald Trump, had told them so. Those are not the droids you're looking for. Republican strategist Brendan Buck has been watching all this and joins us now. Good morning, sir.

BRENDAN BUCK: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: I just want to remind people of some basics here. Of course, the House and Senate leadership are different. Mitch McConnell is the Republican leader in the Senate. He was for this bill and then against it. Mike Johnson is the House speaker. He never seemed eager for the immigration part of this at all. And I'll also remind people that you've worked for a couple of house speakers, and you know a lot of these guys. So what does this episode say about the party and its priorities?

BUCK: Well, you certainly have party leaders who are struggling to get their footing. And you have an interesting dynamic where you have Mitch McConnell, who is all but rumored to be on his way out potentially at the end of this Congress, and Mike Johnson coming in and trying to figure out how to do this job. The Senate is starting to feel a lot more like the House, where you have a bunch of more conservative senators who are, frankly, undermining their leadership at every turn and then turning around and saying, gosh, isn't our leadership bad? So it just feels like there isn't enough respect and trust in leadership right now to assert their will in the way that Mitch McConnell has been able to do for many, many years.

INSKEEP: I'm wanting to argue with the labeling of conservative for some of the more conservative lawmakers. This bill that was rejected would seem from the outside to have a lot that you'd want if you're worried about border security - 1,500 more border agents, more courts so that people get asylum hearings a lot faster and get kicked out a lot faster if they shouldn't be here, a lot of things like that - maybe things you don't like as much as well, but a lot. Did none of this interest Republican lawmakers at all?

BUCK: So I think what we're running into is the party being somewhat post-policy, if you will, where the policy almost doesn't matter - at least it comes in second to the politics. And we are in such a place where anything that is a compromise, anything that Chuck Schumer is for, is necessarily bad in the eyes of a lot of Republican voters. And there's just been enormous blowback. And this issue is the most difficult one that I've dealt with in all my years in Congress - was any time this issue came up, the activists got all riled up, misinformation was rampant, and it was a very difficult environment to do anything. I think a lot of these people understand that this is a major improvement in their policy goals, but they're just not worth taking the political risk, especially when you have someone like Donald Trump out there railing against it.

INSKEEP: Democrats now will say - in fact, are saying - this shows Republicans don't actually care about border security policies. I feel that you're telling me that is functionally true. There may be Republicans who care, but politically they can't afford to care.

BUCK: I think they care. They're just not willing to do anything that would potentially trigger a primary challenge or get them cross with their activists in their districts. This is why this issue never gets resolved, is, frankly, there is no space for Republicans to do anything that would include Democrat support as well. And so that's why when we tried this in 2006 and when we tried this in 2013 and '14, and when we tried this in 2017...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

BUCK: ...It didn't work. And this cycle will continue until the politics change.

INSKEEP: OK, so let's ask about the other part of this. Democrats were willing to do some kind of compromise on immigration, because they were hoping it would be combined with funding for Ukraine and get Republicans to sign on to funding for Ukraine, which some oppose. Do Republicans feel so strongly now against funding for Ukraine that there's really no deal they would ever accept to do that?

BUCK: I think there is still the possibility for this, and it's an important dynamic that I think people should appreciate. Mitch McConnell was for the border policy, probably because he supports it, but more likely because he wanted something on Ukraine, and he thought that adding border provisions was the only way to get it. And now that the border policy seems to be dead, I think he is more than happy to pivot to what his real priority was, which was Ukraine. Now, Republicans are trying to sort out where they stand on this at the moment, and they're probably going to make some more demands along the way. But I do think that there is going to be 60 votes at some point in the Senate for Ukraine and Israel funding. The question then is would the House ever even consider that? And I think Mike Johnson then would be under a lot of pressure. So we're a long way from success, but I do think McConnell will be able to pivot and get 60 votes for a Ukraine package, which was his priority all along.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to figure out the heart of the Republican resistance to funding for Ukraine, and I know there's a lot of reasons, but if you tried to find a basic reasons, is it just that Biden is for it, so they need to be against it? Is it that they think that Vladimir Putin is a great guy? Do they really think it's all being misspent? I mean, what is the bottom line here?

BUCK: There is a - has been and is a growing strain of isolationism in the Republican Party. And Donald Trump, I think, seized on that - you know, his commentary on Iraq, however inconsistent it may be. There are a lot of people in the Republican Party and base Republican voters who don't like the idea of sending us taxpayer money abroad, period. I still think that's a losing argument, but there are enough of those people, particularly the most vocal Republicans, who are going to make a big stink about it and put a lot of pressure on party leaders not to do anything on this.

INSKEEP: Republican strategist Brendan Buck, really appreciate your insights this morning.

BUCK: Yeah. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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