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Despite pressure from Trump, Senate border negotiations forge ahead

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A high-stakes will-they-or-won't-they is happening on Capitol Hill.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yeah. Senate negotiators say they're finalizing the details of a bipartisan agreement on immigration reform. But after months of negotiating, the potential deal could topple just before crossing the finish line as Republicans decide if they should defy former President Trump, who has demanded a hard-line Republican solution at the border.

FADEL: NPR's Eric McDaniel is here in the studio and has the latest. Hey, Eric.

ERIC MCDANIEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So where does the deal stand? These talks have been going on a long time, but now negotiators say they're very close to some sort of bipartisan agreement on a proposal. That's notable - right? - in and of itself.

MCDANIEL: Yeah, I agree. So Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma has been the chief Republican negotiator. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, an independent, former Democrat, has been involved. Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut is the point person for Democrats. And they have worked, by all accounts, pretty tirelessly on this since the fall, with preliminary talks happening as early as last spring. Murphy told me yesterday that the policies here, what's involved, is basically decided. Now they're dealing with dollar amounts and finalizing text.

And part of the reason we're seeing a bipartisan framework here - bipartisan negotiations at all - is, well, the same reason we usually see them in Congress, which is a consensus that the problem is now too big to ignore. There are an all-time record number of people presenting themselves to border protection agents, often more than 10,000 a day, to put in asylum claims, and the system just isn't set up to deal with that as it stands. It's worth remembering that Republicans also told Biden that the only way to get a deal on Ukraine aid, something that's important to him, Israel aid, was to address the crisis at the U.S. border with Mexico. Biden agreed to that, which is how all of this got linked together.

FADEL: And there are also political reasons, though, to link these issues, right?

MCDANIEL: Right. It's a pretty common strategy in Congress to link things together that people feel strongly about. That way, if you're a lawmaker, maybe you can overlook your hang-up about some details or policies that you care less about in order to get the whole package through.

FADEL: Right. Now, there is some uneasiness on the part of Republicans.

MCDANIEL: Right. It was a little kind of - folks were on tenterhooks yesterday on the Hill, and I think we'll have to wait and see where things end up. On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, acknowledged in a closed-door meeting with his Republican colleagues that this could be a politically hard vote. He supports the deal, but GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump has said he opposes it. And in the House, where this was always going to be sort of a long shot just because of the dynamics in that chamber, there are immigration hard-liners, much like Trump himself, for whom any deal with Democrats won't go far enough. You know, it's just not worthwhile.

And with a narrow majority, they don't want to risk opposing Trump, which is a bit like kicking a hornet's nest for a Republican lawmaker - say he backed a primary challenge or somehow otherwise opposed you - and they might not want to send it through. So we're in this weird position. Republicans want to see the text of the deal, weigh whether they're going to take a policy win - i.e. securing the border - and risk a potential Biden political win - credit for that deal, taking action on immigration reform. It's all in open question. Many Republicans really do earnestly want to see something like this get through, want to send money to Ukraine. But as ever, there are other political concerns involved.

FADEL: OK, so what's next? When is this going to be a deal, if it's going to be a deal?

MCDANIEL: Well, we have to wait for the text. Kyrsten Sinema told reporters yesterday in a rare gaggle that we could see this as early as next week. We want to see what the reforms are, to see whether Republicans react positively to it once they've actually seen the policy and to see if there are defections from the left. This thing needs 60 votes in all to pass the Senate.

FADEL: All right. NPR congressional reporter Eric McDaniel. Thanks, Eric.

MCDANIEL: Yeah. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Eric McDaniel
Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.