Joe Biden is supposed to know something about legislating. After all, he spent 36 years in the U.S. Senate. He must have learned something in those decades. And yet Biden is the driving force behind one of the biggest Capitol Hill fiascos in years: the rapidly imploding "deal" on the U.S.-Mexico border, plus aid to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan. It was Biden who insisted that those disparate subjects be linked – he threatened to veto any part that was passed alone – which turned out to be a fatal mistake given the impossibility of a majority in Congress agreeing on any immigration-related topic. Failing to agree on immigration guaranteed failure on the other policies.
So the deal's demise does not mean that Biden and Congress have failed only on the border. It means they have failed on the border, on Israel, on Ukraine and Taiwan. It's a quadruple fiasco.
Of course, most of the attention has focused on the border. That's because Biden's policy of essentially opening the border – allowing somewhere between 6 million and 8 million illegal crossers to enter the United States – has finally spread disruption not just to the border states but to big blue cities like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. With an election approaching, some leaders of Biden's own party are nervous about the damage he has done. They believe passing a "border bill" would be a way for them to say to voters: Look, we tried to do something about it.
The problem is, the Democratic impulse on the border problem has always been to search for ways (and money) to facilitate, speed, accommodate and regularize the crossing of millions of inadmissible migrants into the United States. They do not look at chaos on the border and say, "Stop the flow!" They look at it and say, "We need more beds and social workers and asylum officials to process these migrants more efficiently into the country."
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The bill, produced during months of secret negotiations among three senators – Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Arizona independent Kyrsten Sinema and Republican James Lankford of Oklahoma – reflected that difference. The three lawmakers produced, essentially, a bill to regularize the flow of migrants into the country in the guise of a bill to control the flow.
The most controversial provision was one that purported to give the president the authority to "close the border" if the flow of illegal crossers reached 5,000 a day for a week. It was an outrageous idea; back in the Obama administration, the secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, said a flow of more than 1,000 a day "overwhelms the system." Johnson said 4,000 a day would "truly" be a "crisis." The Senate border negotiators proposed to make that level, 4,000 a day, well within the range of an acceptable flow of illegal crossers. It also provided more beds and asylum officials and others to deal with the flow.
I asked Cesar Conda, a former chief of staff for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and a veteran of 2013's Gang of Eight, which was the last big attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform, what went wrong this time.
"The one lesson from the Gang of Eight reform is that big immigration bills are doomed to fail," Conda told me in an email exchange. "The 2013 bill not only addressed the status of illegal immigrants and border security, but also included the entire kitchen sink of immigration issues, including low- and high-skilled workers, refugees, agricultural workers, diversity visas, and family-based and merit-based immigration. The bill ended up totaling 544 pages, which in and of itself became a source of criticism."
The Gang of Eight bill actually passed the Senate with votes to spare. But it failed in the House. Now, looking back, Conda sees some telling differences between then and now, the biggest of which was that the 2013 bill's authors went through the entire procedure for passing a bill. "At least the Gang of Eight was considered under regular order," Conda said. "It was marked up in the Senate Judiciary Committee and fully considered on the Senate floor. This new border bill, 370 pages of legislative text, was crafted behind closed doors by just three senators, released at the last minute, and will be jammed into the supplemental security bill with apparently no opportunity for senators to amend it." That's one of the hallmarks of bad legislation; its authors don't want it to be fully aired before lawmakers vote on it.
Finally, I asked Conda about accusations from Democrats and others that Republicans only opposed the bill because Donald Trump told them to. On Monday, former Rep. Liz Cheney posted on X, "On Trump's orders, Republicans in Congress are rejecting the border security deal." What about that? I asked Conda. "No," he responded. "This border deal was dead on arrival without Trump's opposition. Republicans don't believe Joe Biden would use any of the additional tools in this bill to secure the border. He has the authority under current law to stop this surge of illegal aliens but refuses to do it."
So now the bill is just about dead. As Conda suggested, Republicans have long argued that Biden could stop the flow right now, with no new, additional powers. They certainly would not trust him with any additional authority. Plus, the Republican base is deeply concerned about the influx of millions of illegal border crossers, and they don't trust Biden – or their own GOP leaders in Congress – to do anything about it. "The party hates this bill, believes it is a fig leaf on a huge problem, and they are tired of being lied to," writes one well-connected GOP strategist in an email exchange.
On Tuesday afternoon, Biden appeared at the White House to threaten Republicans with political reprisals if they vote against his bill. He will campaign against the GOP and blame Trump and Republicans for the mess on the border. "I'll be taking this issue to the country," Biden said. "Every day between now and November the American people are going to know that the only reason the border is not secure is Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican friends."
It was a stunningly dishonest statement. Every American who has been awake for the last three years knows that the current border crisis began the day Biden took office and is directly attributable to the changes he made in U.S. immigration and border policy. But Biden's threat provided a sobering picture of what is in store for the rest of 2024.