Speaker Johnson Plots His Border Play

Speaker Johnson Plots His Border Play

Sipa USA

Senate negotiators working on a bipartisan deal pairing border security measures with aid to Ukraine and Israel are hoping to have a framework prepared and be able to brief their colleagues about it when lawmakers return to the Capitol next week. But as those talks continue, House Speaker Mike Johnson reportedly may seek to directly negotiate border policy changes with the White House given concern among his members that any bipartisan immigration reform still being worked out in the Senate won’t meet their demands.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona independent who has been involved in the Senate talks, told reporters Friday that she had also spoken with Johnson. “You’ve got to get a bill through both chambers to get it signed by the president,” Sinema said, according to Politico. “So we're working very hard to ensure that this is a bill that can pass both the Senate, the House and get signed by the president.”

But the White House downplayed the possibility of engaging in direct talks with the speaker, calling the idea “not serious.”

“The last I checked, congressional leaders are having talks,” White House Budget Director Shalanda Young said at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “There’ve been talks for weeks with Senator Murphy, Senator Sinema, Senator Lankford. I know where the speaker’s suite is — it’s right next to the Senate. So it’s a long trip down to the White House to do something that could be done right next door. The White House has been involved in those. … I’m sure no one’s gonna tell the speaker if he wants to be involved in that, that he can’t be involved in that.”

As the Senate talks have continued, Johnson has previously called for Democrats to accept the more restrictive provisions in the border bill passed by House Republicans, known as H.R. 2. Democrats have dismissed such demands as non-starters that could scuttle the chance for a deal.

In turn, some hardline conservatives have responded this week by saying that they’d favor shutting down the government if the Biden administration and Democrats don’t meet their demands. “We want to get the border closed and secured, first; and we want to make sure that we reduce nondefense discretionary spending. That is an important objective,” Johnson told reporters during a visit Wednesday to the Texas border.

Highlighting the heated debate going on, Johnson’s deputy chief of staff for communications, Raj Shah, also released a memo Friday charging the White House with using “previously debunked talking points to mislead the public about Republicans’ record and position on border security funding.” Shah was pushing back on White House claims that House Republicans had voted to eliminate over 2,000 Border Patrol agents and linked to fact checks that found the claim false or mostly false because it was based on a GOP bill that called for deep but unspecified spending cuts.

Shah also criticized the Biden administration’s request for nearly $14 billion in supplemental border security funding, calling it “little more than misdirection and false advertising that would do little to secure the border.” Shah said that less than 17% of the money would go to Border Patrol operations and that the administration’s plan would do little to stem the flow of migrants entering the country illegally.

“From the start of President Biden’s term,” Shah wrote, “his Administration has implemented policies that have undermined security and created a humanitarian crisis at the Southern border. Now, in a desperate attempt to shift blame for a crisis their policies have induced, they have argued it’s a funding problem.”

The White House stood by its claims, with Young telling reporters that when Republicans say they want to cut non-defense discretionary spending, homeland security is included in that.

Shutdown deadline looming: With just over two weeks to go before a January 19 deadline to fund portions of the government, Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are also negotiating overall spending levels for fiscal year 2024.

Young on Friday argued that Republicans should stick to the deal they cut months ago. “We have to remind people this budget agreement was not a handshake, it was a vote of Congress. It is not optional. They have to keep their word and live by the numbers that were agreed to by – 70% of the House Republican caucus voted for the debt deal, 76% of Democrats voted for that deal, and that is the only way to get appropriations deals without the threat of shutdown.”

But Young said she’s not particularly hopeful that a shutdown can be avoided. “I’m typically optimistic,” she said. “Don’t mark me down as optimistic this morning, especially after some of the remarks I’ve seen over the last couple of days.”