Politics / February 6, 2024

Republicans Got the Border Deal They Wanted. Why Are They Disowning It?

The Senate agreement is a historic win for the anti-immigration GOP. But Speaker of the House Mike Johnson has pronounced it “dead on arrival.”

Chris Lehmann
House Speaker Johnson Holds Roundtable Discussion On The Border

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.) attends a roundtable on the southern border at the US Capitol on January 31, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

(Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

Like doomed protagonists of an Aesop’s fable, congressional Republicans are frantically fleeing from the sole successes they’ve authored in a dreary, dilatory tour of pretend lawmaking. With the Senate Appropriations Committee releasing the details of a bipartisan deal to clamp down on border security, Republicans who’ve spent the past five months loudly demanding a punitive new border regime as the baseline requirement for increased military funding for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan are now claiming to be the hapless victims of their own strategic priorities. In any sane political order, they would be forced to seek reelection in November under the slogan “Stop Hitting Yourself.”

But of course we are several universes away from political sanity with a party brandishing the holy mandate of Trump appeasement as its sole reason for being. The former president came out against the deal while its details were still being finalized, proclaiming on TruthSocial that “I do not think we should do a Border Deal, at all, unless we get EVERYTHING needed to shut down the INVASION of Millions & Millions of people, many from parts unknown, into our once great, but soon to be great again, Country!” In trademark mob boss argot he added, “I have no doubt that our wonderful Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, will only make a deal that is PERFECT ON THE BORDER.”

Johnson, whose short tour as House speaker has already served as a miniature documentary on the multivalent meanings of the word “quisling,” wasted little time in showing his serially indicted, resort-bound Svengali that the message was received. He repeatedly urged the Senate to take up the House’s wholly symbolic border measure, HR 2, in lieu of the bipartisan deal in the making—even though the bill had zero chance of emerging from the Senate, let alone gaining the approval of President Biden. But Johnson’s tour of make-believe posturing was only beginning. When the Senate deal debuted over the weekend, the speaker took to the Sunday talk shows to pronounce the agreement “dead on arrival” in the House. To dramatize his total Trump fealty, he also shifted away from the fanciful touting of HR 2 to insist, as Trump had, that there was no need to address border issues with legislation at all; Biden could institute a whole new draconian era of border policy by signing executive orders, if he only had the courage.

There was a certain grim fitness to this latest acrobatic act of blame shifting on the part of the premier leader of a House of Representatives already boasting a historic level of non-accomplishment. The idea that presidents alone make or break border policy is certainly news to the many past generations of lawmakers who stubbornly continued to enact legislation on the subject. Beyond the considerable weight of historical precedent, however, Johnson’s argument was so laughably threadbare on its own terms as to be pitiable; all one had to do to dispel it was to consult the 400-plus harsh and gruesomely unethical border policies that the Trump White House introduced by executive fiat, which did nothing to reduce the volume of immigration at the country’s southern border.

It’s worth noting that the pending Senate deal will likewise do little to advance the tirelessly flogged GOP goal of reducing the flow of immigrants, documented and otherwise, into the country. The accord will largely crack down on asylum applications—a bit of procedural legerdemain that conceals the inconvenient truth that immigrants seeking asylum will in all likelihood resort to other avenues of entry. The provision granting a president authority to shut down the border after three consecutive days of 5,000-plus entries will again likely just stagger the timeline of border crossings, rather than reducing their total number. Other features of the bill are hidebound and inhumane—scarcely surprising, given how completely Democratic senators have caved in to Republican demands for the sake of calling the package bipartisan. The deal also provides $7.8 billion in additional funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with a cool $6 billion directed to enforcement and detainment—a sum greater than ICE’s yearly enforcement budget. It also does nothing to address the plight of “Dreamers”—children born to undocumented parents—even though virtually all recent immigration reform efforts have included provisions easing their path to citizenship, in part because such humane reforms are overwhelmingly popular. Yet the bill’s cruelties were very much the point for Senate Republican negotiators like James Lankford of Oklahoma and Thom Tillis of North Carolina; GOP lawmakers were, for once, not lying when they hailed the Senate bargaining over the border as a historic win for their side. 

But these are all policy matters, and the GOP leadership could not be more militant in advertising its collective hostility to policy. Here, too, they follow the incoherent, tantrum-throwing example of their maximum leader. Trump greeted the news of the Senate package with another TruthSocial tirade. “Only a fool, or a Radical Left Democrat, would vote for this horrendous Border Bill, which only gives Shutdown Authority after 5000 Encounters a day, when we already have the right to CLOSE THE BORDER NOW, which must be done,” Trump fumed. “This Bill is a great gift to the Democrats, and a Death Wish for The Republican Party. It takes the HORRIBLE JOB the Democrats have done on Immigration and the Border, absolves them, and puts it all squarely on the shoulders of Republicans. Don’t be STUPID!!!” In short order, Republican senators began falling over themselves in the act of backing away from their lovingly crafted border package.

Trump also hammered away at the deal’s original framework, which effectively traded concessions on the border for military outlays for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. It was time to launch a separate foreign aid bill, Trump wrote, since immigration policy “should not be tied to foreign aid in any way, shape, or form!” Here again, Johnson was Johnny on the spot, actually anticipating Trump’s latest outburst with a hastily debuted stand-alone aid package for Israel in the House. (He thereby gave a miss to aid for Ukraine, the big-ticket item for GOP and Democratic senators alike, but a tough sell to the House GOP conference—particularly given that Johnson himself has voted against it in the past.)

The point of all this Capitol Hill squalor was right there in Trump’s latest Truth Social post: Republicans need to run on the xenophobic rhetoric of a Democratic-managed border “invasion” in order for Trump to win the presidency once more. The Biden economy continues to overperform expectations, with inflation—the issue that Republicans already demagogued to null effect in the 2022 midterms—continuing to abate. A sizable segment of the independent electorate keeps telling pollsters they won’t vote for Trump if he’s convicted in his several pending criminal trials. That leaves border hysteria as the last plank of viable mass MAGA grievance left standing. And that’s why Mike Johnson and his colleagues are moving with all deliberate speed on one front this week: the show-trial impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for the grave offense of actually doing his job.

Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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