Ron Johnson and other Republicans pushed for tougher border security. Then they tanked a deal

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WASHINGTON – Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson was adamant in his demands to tie any additional Ukraine aid to border security measures that would stem the unprecedented influx of migrants into the country.

He repeatedly suggested late last year that pairing the two would be Republicans’ best chance at tightening control of the U.S.-Mexico border.

But the Oshkosh Republican this week emerged as one of the most vocal opponents of a now-dead bipartisan compromise that packaged foreign aid to Ukraine and Israel with some of the most stringent border policies Congress has seen in years.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, left, and U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil during a news conference on illegal immigration Nov. 11, 2023 at Whitewater City Hall.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, left, and U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil during a news conference on illegal immigration Nov. 11, 2023 at Whitewater City Hall.

“Democrats wanted funding for Ukraine, a lot of Republicans do as well. But there are issues involved in that,” Johnson told reporters before the bill failed to clear a procedural hurdle Wednesday on a 49-50 vote that would have started debate on the measure in the Senate.

“It didn't work,” Johnson said, “because that bill in the end would have probably done more harm than good by normalizing a flow of illegal immigration and undermining a future president who actually wants to secure the border.”

More: In Whitewater, an influx of immigrants has leaders determined to welcome newcomers, solve problems

Republicans had rejected the deal before its text had been released Sunday night. House Speaker Mike Johnson declared it would be dead on arrival in the lower chamber as former President Donald Trump railed against it. And four months of bipartisan negotiations were quickly doomed.

The opposition from Johnson and his colleagues, including other Wisconsin Republicans, served as the latest example of the tumult within the GOP on Capitol Hill over how to address an issue Republicans had pressured Democrats to act on. It also left up in the air Congress’ continued support for Ukraine aid.

A version of the package without border provisions — it included billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel — cleared a procedural vote and advanced to debate in the Senate Thursday afternoon, though its path to passage was not guaranteed.

“We all negotiated in good faith. We delivered. We produced a bill many thought impossible,” Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Independent from Arizona involved in border negotiations, said this week. “But less than 24 hours after we released the bill, my Republican colleagues changed their minds. It turns out, they want all talk and no action.”

The failed bill would have taken several border security steps sought by Republicans. It included language that would raise the threshold for migrants’ asylum claims, expand migrant detention efforts and speed up the processing of asylum claims so migrants who are denied asylum could be removed from the country at a faster rate.

The bipartisan deal would have given the Department of Homeland Security the authority to shut down the border if the number of migrant encounters exceeded an average of 5,000 per day over the course of a week. It also included provisions for more Border Patrol agents and asylum officers. The legislation did not include measures like a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, undocumented migrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children — a top priority for Democrats.

The National Border Patrol Council, the Border Patrol union, endorsed the measure, and other Republicans like lead negotiator Sen. James Lankford, of Oklahoma, described the proposal as better than the status quo.

Democrats, meanwhile, largely pointed the Republican about-face on the border compromise this week as evidence of them using the situation for political gain. Trump, the current Republican presidential front runner, is sure to campaign on the border and had said any border deal before the election would be a “gift” to Democrats.

Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Madison Democrat who supported the border security package, accused those who opposed it of deciding “to play politics and block this common-sense, compromise approach.”

Johnson, however, has called for conditioning monthly allotments of aid to Ukraine on benchmarks showing decreases in border crossings, accusing the Biden administration of wanting an open border. Such provisions were not included in the bipartisan proposal.

“They’re trying to get a bunch of people that are very appreciative to the Democrat Party for letting them in this country so they’d vote for them and create a long-term majority,” Johnson said of Democrats in a brief interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this week.

When noted that non-citizens cannot vote in federal elections, Johnson said Democrats are “always looking” at ways to grant migrants citizenship and pointed to absentee voting as “relaxing controls” on legal voting.

“They’re thinking long-term,” Johnson said. “You can keep asking me the question, but it’s obvious Democrats want to make it easy to cheat so that immigrants can vote.”

He also took aim at Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, whom he opposed during the leadership elections in 2022, accusing him of crafting an “awful bill” to satisfy “his master plan to fund the Ukraine war.”

He tweeted a meme this week of McConnell as Charlie Brown missing a kick at a football held by Sinema, the Independent negotiator.

Wisconsin’s House Republicans similarly rejected the measure after previously calling for legislative action.

Several members, including Reps. Tom Tiffany, Scott Fitzgerald and Bryan Steil, pointed to H.R. 2, a strict border security bill House Republicans passed along party lines last May, as an example of the policy they’d like to see. But Democrats have made clear they would not support it.

“The Biden-Senate Border Sellout is not compromise; it's capitulation,” Tiffany tweeted earlier this week.

“The Senate border deal is a complete disaster,” Fitzgerald wrote on X. “The package would give taxpayer funds to non-governmental orgs that are aiding in transporting illegal immigrants throughout the U.S., turning every state into a border state. This is an absolute non-starter.”

Steil and Wisconsin Republican Reps. Derrick Van Orden and Glenn Grothman visited the southern border with dozens of other House Republicans in January. And Steil and Johnson held a roundtable discussion in Whitewater last year to highlight the influx of migrants into the community.

"I think H.R. 2 should be implemented into law," Steil told the Journal Sentinel before the Senate's bipartisan compromise was unveiled. "The president also has a ton of tools in the toolkit that he could implement today that would dramatically reduce the number of individuals coming into the United States."

On Thursday, 17 Republican senators joined Democrats in voting to move forward with a $95.3 billion aid package to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan that did not include the border measure.

Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called the move a “good first step” to aiding U.S. allies. He said Republicans will get the chance to offer amendments.

But Johnson was among those to oppose the procedural vote. He told the Journal Sentinel proceeding to the security assistance bill was a “total capitulation.”

“We should continue to do everything we can to secure the border,” he said. “And the only leverage we have with this administration, because they want an open border, is Ukraine funding.”

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Why Ron Johnson, other Republicans tanked a border security deal