Schumer on Ukraine negotiations: ‘Democrats are real about border security’
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in an interview Wednesday he has hope that Republicans will back an eventual deal to swap immigration policy changes for aid to Ukraine as the Senate leaves town for the holidays without resolving the issue.
“I think they realize it’s the right thing to do and I think they realize that Democrats have moved much more to the middle on border security,” Schumer said.
This past year marked one of the least productive for Congress in modern history, as the politically divided chambers sent just a couple dozen bills to President Biden’s desk and House Republicans spent weeks locked in a messy speakership battle that precluded legislating. Fundamental and once-uncontroversial tasks, such as funding the government or meeting the government’s debt obligations, became lengthy dramas as a right-wing faction of House Republicans made stands over fiscal issues.
One of the casualties of that dysfunction: a $110 billion national security package containing military aid for Ukraine as it fends off a Russian invasion, Israel in its war against Hamas, and the Indo-Pacific; and humanitarian aid and U.S.-Mexico border security funds.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made the case to Republicans for Ukraine funding but has also joined his conference in demanding that policy changes to address the flow of migrants at the border be attached to the package. A small, bipartisan group of senators, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and McConnell’s and Schumer’s staffs have met daily trying to hammer out the politically risky border agreement, and they will continue to connect virtually over the holidays. White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients and top adviser Steve Ricchetti have also been involved.
“I’m more hopeful today than I was a week ago,” Schumer said of those negotiations. “I think Republicans are seeing the Democrats are real about border security, consistent with our principles.”
McConnell has emphasized the importance of getting aid to Ukraine in its fight against Russia, which he views as key to U.S. and global security. But aiding Ukraine is deeply unpopular among Republican voters, according to polls, and many House Republicans in particular are hostile to it.
Schumer said Republicans face “the cloud of Donald Trump” as they weigh whether to back a deal, given his critiques of funding Ukraine. But McConnell is working hard to get an agreement, Schumer said.
“I think he does want a border deal and I think he really wants Ukraine,” Schumer said of McConnell. “But the question is, can he get enough of his caucus to go along?”
Republicans have blamed the White House for not being more engaged earlier in the negotiations.
Biden gets low marks from voters on immigration and the border, giving him a political incentive to cut a deal. But Democrats have raised objections to some proposals in the still-evolving border agreement, which include a mechanism to allow migrants to be expelled summarily on days when border crossings are particularly high. Some Congressional Hispanic Caucus members have compared the proposals to the former president’s policies on immigration and objected to being cut out of the negotiations.
Schumer said he thought any eventual deal will have majority support in his caucus.
“I don’t think it can happen without majority support of Senate Democrats,” Schumer said. “Hopefully we can get a majority of both parties to support it.”
Schumer dismissed the idea of doing a stand-alone Israel aid package if the border negotiations are unsuccessful. “The position of the president and of our caucus is united: It’s all going to go together,” he said.
Israel’s war against Hamas has divided Democrats, with some senators pushing for more oversight of military aid to the country given the conflict’s high civilian death toll. But Schumer said he thought his caucus was mostly united, with just a “few,” if any, senators not wanting to send billions more in military support to the country.
The “vast majority” of Democrats are not happy with how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is running the country, he added. “There’s a broad consensus in our caucus that we want to support Israel but we want a two-state solution,” he said.
The debate on the national security package could press up against a government shutdown, further complicating the process.
Schumer, who has blamed House Republicans for stoking “chaos,” will face a critical funding deadline Jan. 19, when swaths of the federal government run out of money. The Senate has bipartisan agreement on how to fund the government, but House Republicans, led by Speaker Mike Johnson (La.), are still pushing for steeper budget cuts.
“We’ll see what he does on January 19th,” Schumer said of Johnson. “There is no way they can get this done without bipartisanship, and they will learn that lesson because when they listen to the 30 hard-right MAGA Republicans who seem to have far too much say in running the House … it leads to disaster.”
Schumer said he has a “cordial” relationship with the speaker and confers with Johnson more often than he used to talk with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) when he was speaker. Still, Johnson and House Republicans have so far not agreed to fund the government next year at the same level Senate Democrats and Republicans have agreed to, leading to the possibility of a partial government shutdown beginning in January. Schumer said he advised Johnson to learn the “lessons” of past Republican speakers and resist the far right of his conference, and will wait to see if Johnson follows the advice.
The majority leader has faced criticism from Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) — a top appropriator — and other Republicans for not moving more of the bipartisan funding bills through the Senate this year, which could have placed more pressure on the House to act. Schumer blamed Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) for slowing progress on those bills, however, saying his objections and then the need to overcome military holds by Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala), short-term funding bills and passing the Pentagon funding bill left little time for it.
“Ask them to ask Ron Johnson why that happened,” Schumer said.
Schumer also faces a grueling map in 2024 to keep his narrow majority, with Republicans trying to nab at least eight seats held by Democrats or senators who vote with Democrats. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) recently announced his decision to retire rather than run for reelection, all but ceding Republicans one seat. Democratic Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio) are also up for reelection in red states.
Schumer said that polling shows his incumbents doing well, and that he was not worried about Biden’s approval rating dragging down the senators.
“I think Biden’s numbers will get much better,” he said. “I think that by next year people are going to feel a lot better about the economy and understand that President Biden’s stewardship has helped get us there.”
Schumer would not comment when asked whether he wanted Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), one of the three main senators working to strike the Ukraine-for-border-security deal, to run for reelection. Trump-endorsed Arizona Republican Kari Lake is leading the field, while Rep. Ruben Gallego is running as the Democrat in the swing state, leading to an awkward decision for Schumer if Sinema should run.
“We’re going to make sure a Republican doesn’t take that seat,” he said.