Why Mike Johnson Is Praying the Senate Doesn’t Pass the Immigration Bill

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The Senate’s long-in-the-works border security and Ukraine aid bill still has not been released, but House Speaker Mike Johnson knows he is firmly against it. So against it, in fact, that he’s speaking about the future bill as already deceased.

In a letter to colleagues last Friday, Johnson wrote, “The Senate appears unable to reach any agreement.” (This was wishful thinking on his part; Senate negotiators hope to release their agreement this week.) “If rumors about the contents of the draft proposal are true,” Johnson continued, “it would have been dead on arrival in the House anyway.”

Johnson further trashed the proposal in a House GOP meeting Tuesday morning, saying that it had “no way forward” or that “it’s not going anywhere,” according to members in the room. Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has threatened to oust Johnson should he accede to the deal, was pleased with what she heard.

“I just heard Speaker Johnson saying it’s absolutely dead, which is what I wanted to hear,” Greene told CNN. “As a matter of fact, he said so clear, ‘I don’t know why people keep asking me about it,’ because as it stands right now, there’s no way forward.”

So is that that, then, for a bill that hasn’t even been released yet? Well, it’s not looking good, and it hasn’t since Trump assumed control over the Republican presidential primary.

But there’s a reason why, at least for now, Senate negotiators are still pressing ahead with the deal. There’s a reason why the lead Senate Republican on the deal, James Lankford, is still defending his product on television. And there’s a reason why Johnson is speaking out now, in the hopes that the Senate can kill the deal before it reaches his chamber. The thin reed of hope for passage of this package is that Johnson, a nobody as of three months ago, will wilt under the pressure should it arrive in the House.

It is hard to analyze a bill that hasn’t been released. But according to reports and senators briefed on its structure, the bill would require the Department of Homeland Security to immediately turn away migrants crossing illegally if border encounters reach an average of 5,000 a day over the course of a week. The idea is to prevent the sorts of surges—such as the all-time record of 302,000 encounters in December—that have overwhelmed border and immigration authorities. The bill would also aim to speed up the asylum process to adjudicate claims within six months.

The main policy objection from Republicans who’ve vehemently written off the deal is, essentially, that the federal government is putting into statute that the first 5,000 migrants trying to enter illegally each day would earn a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

“Why would you tolerate 5,000 a day before you sought to suddenly enforce the law? That would be surrender,” Johnson said on Tuesday. “The goal should be zero illegal crossings a day, not 5,000. And all the president’s authority should be utilized at zero.”

But those first 5,000 wouldn’t be given work permits, a brand-new car, or anything else. They would still be processed according to the law. As Lankford explained on Face the Nation this weekend, “When we got 4,000 or 5,000 people crossing the border, we can no longer process those individuals.” And so that’s where the threshold has been set.

Although the text of the bill is still to come, though, the politics underlying this advanced opposition have already arrived.

Trump, despite having called for additional removal authority as president, is working hard to kill the deal because he doesn’t want Biden to get a “win”—and neutralize the sting of his top issue—before the election. Trump owns the House Republican Conference, so his message is theirs. And Senate Republicans are split between more pragmatic, internationalist lawmakers along the lines of Mitch McConnell, and a more MAGA flank. The reason the two issues of Ukraine and the border were linked in the first place was because Republicans, including Johnson, insisted that Congress needed to take action on the southern border before appropriating any more funds to Ukrainian defense. Now Republicans in opposition to the deal are arguing that legislation isn’t needed at all, and that Biden already has all the authority he needs to rein in an overwhelmed southern border.

To translate: A whole lot of Republicans don’t want to take an uncomfortable vote. In private, a lot of Republicans would like to make significant progress on border security while reupping Ukrainian munitions; politically, though, voting for more Ukraine aid alongside “Biden’s border plan” is a toughie with Trump so ardently opposed.

Now, if the vote would be difficult for individual members, imagine being the one who decides whether there will be a vote.

Johnson’s confident declarations that this bill is deader than dirt are easy to make now, when the bill is still the Senate’s problem. Politically, they’re even necessary right now: Trump wants Johnson to make them, and Johnson wants to give the Senate another reason not to pass this bill.

Because if the Senate were to pass the deal, Johnson would be under a level of pressure that few have experienced. It would be coming from not only a bipartisan Senate majority or the executive branch. It would be from not just the still-meaningful chunk of House Republicans who do support continuing to arm Ukraine. The pressure would be international, with the leader of each American ally pleading with Johnson not to let Ukraine fall and allow for a new era of Russian expansionism to be condoned, or for China to get the green light to take Taiwan. Johnson really would not want images of a fallen Kyiv shown on a split screen with his face.

The path for this bill (or an amended version of it) to become law is narrow. Describing it is a bit like describing Nikki Haley’s path to the Republican presidential nomination. But it’s hard to be sure what Mike Johnson thinks until he’s really, truly forced to think about it.