President Biden and his aides say the swift collapse of a bipartisan border security bill has reshaped the political dynamics of the immigration issue, setting the stage for them to finally take the offensive in an area that has long been one of Biden’s biggest liabilities.
Former president Donald Trump and his Republican allies, though, insist that the bill’s rise and fall has changed little about the 2024 race, and they are making it clear Trump will continue pummeling Biden over his handling of the border.
After Senate Republicans killed a procedural move Wednesday to advance the compromise bill, it is clear U.S. immigration policy will remain unchanged for now. But as the two sides’ rapid responses show, the battle for the aftermath is just beginning.
Biden’s team contends that Republican immigration attacks will be blunted because the GOP torpedoed a border bill that contained many of their demands, and some Republicans agree — to a point.
“The atmospherics are not exactly positive when you have a bill that does what you’ve asked for repeatedly, and then you turn around and kill it,” said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster. But he added, “That said, it’s hard for me to imagine Joe Biden being favored over Donald Trump for dealing with the border and the chaos down there. … Donald Trump has the largest lead over Joe Biden on the border than on any other part of the job.”
Republicans have scored powerful political points over the past three years by highlighting images of chaos at the border and would-be migrants heading toward the United States. Some Democrats wonder how effective Biden’s rhetorical counteroffensive will be as long as Republicans continue to take actions that highlight the border crisis in visceral ways, including by transporting migrants to northern cities.
“The GOP is using political theater to make voters feel their issues and not just hear their issues — busing migrants, for example — while Democrats keep trying to make voters hear our logic,” said Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic pollster. “I’m afraid in a post-issue political environment that theater is more effective than logic, so I hope Democrats step their theater up.”
For now, Biden is signaling that he will at least adopt a more aggressive tone when it comes to the border.
“I’m going to be taking this issue to the country,” Biden, who has spent much of his presidency avoiding commentary on the thorny issue, said Tuesday. “The voters are going to know that just at the moment we were going to secure the border and fund these other programs, Trump and the MAGA Republicans said no because they’re afraid of Donald Trump.”
Trump is not shying away from his role in killing the bipartisan effort, saying, “Please blame it on me,” last month as he began ramping up his attempts to stymie the negotiations.
The former president has at times been explicit about his political motivations. “This Bill is a great gift to the Democrats, and a Death Wish for the Republican Party,” Trump declared this week on his Truth Social platform. “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.”
How voters ultimately assess this week’s drama could have a significant impact. Trump has made immigration a central theme in his bid for a return to the White House. The former president has vowed to start “the largest deportation operation in American history” if he is reelected, while accusing the Biden administration of having an “open-border policy,” a charge the White House denies.
Trump has also compared the border crossings to a “military invasion,” portraying migrants as “criminals,” “gang members” and “terrorists.”
While Biden has largely denounced such anti-immigrant rhetoric, his decision last month to back what he called the “toughest and fairest” border bill in decades — and his vow to “shut down the border” if it passed — reflected the intense pressure he has faced to address the surge in migration under his watch, which has prompted even some Democratic leaders to say more must be done.
Biden’s aides say Trump’s decision to torpedo this week’s conservative border deal, while Biden embraced it, will allow them to more easily parry attacks over border security. The deal included various GOP-backed measures, including provisions to restrict asylum, expand detention capacity and shut down the border altogether when it becomes overwhelmed.
But Biden may face a tough challenge in convincing skeptical Americans that despite Trump’s harsh rhetoric, his predecessor now bears responsibility for the situation at the border, where there have been more than 6 million apprehensions over the past three years. Biden has said that he would use the bully pulpit to drive home that message in the coming months.
“Every day between now and November, the American people are going to know the only reason the border is not secure is Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican friends,” Biden said Tuesday, emphasizing that the bipartisan deal had garnered support from the conservative Border Patrol union as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Biden is also seeking to benefit from the chaos, infighting and finger-pointing among Republicans. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a staunch conservative, spent months negotiating the border deal with Democrats, only to see it torched by fellow Republicans within hours of being introduced. House Republicans, meanwhile, suffered back-to-back failures on Tuesday on measures attempting to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and providing aid to Israel. By Wednesday, Republicans remained divided about the path forward.
Biden campaign aides said they planned to use those developments to showcase a contrast between the president’s accomplishments and Republicans’ struggles to govern.
One Biden aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy, said the campaign plans to intensify its efforts to brand congressional GOP leadership as historically unproductive and chaotic, presenting the president by contrast as someone who is willing to reach across the aisle to solve complex problems.
But even as Biden pivots to a more aggressive posture on border politics, he continues to face the reality of being president at a time of record migration.
Thousands of people from a wide variety of nations continue to flow across the southern border each day, and Republican governors such as Texas’s Greg Abbott have taken to busing many of them to major cities run by Democrats. Mayors in cities including New York, Chicago and Denver have sent increasingly desperate pleas to Biden for help dealing with a surge of newly arriving migrants.
A January poll from Quinnipiac University found that 63 percent of registered voters disapproved of how Biden has handled “the situation at the Mexican border.” The poll found that 61 percent called the situation at the border a crisis, including 82 percent of Republicans, 60 percent of independents and 43 percent of Democrats.
A senior Trump adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the race, described the border as “the No. 1 issue” motivating the GOP base, adding, “If we’re debating the border, we’re winning.”
The adviser added that most voters were not paying attention to the details of the congressional drama surrounding the bipartisan bill. “If your campaign messaging is based on what happened inside the Senate cloakroom, you’re screwed,” the adviser said.
Trump’s campaign and MAGA Inc., the super PAC supporting him, have spent $9.8 million on television ads on immigration this election cycle, according to the tracking firm AdImpact. Meanwhile, Biden and his supporting groups have not yet spent any money on ads on the issue, reflecting a view that it does not play in their favor.
Trump’s allies continue to seize on dramatic episodes that drive home the purported threat posed by liberal immigration policies. One recent anti-Biden ad included footage of an incident last month when a group of suspected migrants pummeled New York City police officers.
Republicans, who in the past have demanded tough new laws to bring the border under control, have more recently rallied behind the claim that Biden has the authority he needs to manage the crisis on his own but is failing to do so. That’s one of the reasons GOP lawmakers gave for rejecting the border bill this week.
They have also noted that Biden overturned some of Trump’s immigration policies early in his presidency, a move they have sought to link to the surge in migration over the past three years.
“ALL A PRESIDENT HAS TO DO IS SAY, ‘CLOSE THE BORDER,’ AND THE BORDER WILL BE CLOSED,” Trump wrote on social media Tuesday. “A COSTLY NEW BILL IS NOT NECESSARY!”
The White House and Biden campaign have responded by releasing numerous past comments from GOP officials, including Trump, saying presidential authority is insufficient to address the problem.
They have accused Trump and his allies of preferring an issue to a solution. “Republicans have to decide: Who do they serve — Donald Trump or the American people?” Biden said from the White House on Tuesday. “Are they here to solve problems or just weaponize those problems for political purposes?”
Some Republicans agree they want to see this issue resolved in the political arena rather than in the halls of Congress. “Americans will turn to the upcoming election to end the border crisis,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in a statement announcing his opposition to the bill.
But presidents and lawmakers of both parties have tried and failed for decades to enact new immigration policies. On several occasions, a bipartisan push has been blocked by conservatives opposed to liberal demands for a path to citizenship for those in the United States illegally. This week’s package was notable for omitting such measures, though it was blocked by Republicans nonetheless.
The current furor began in late December, when Republican lawmakers defeated an aid package for Ukraine and Israel, saying they would only accept such a package if it was attached to a bill with tough new immigration measures.
But after the White House and Senate negotiators hashed out such a deal, Trump blasted it, and some Republicans expressed fear that passing it before the election would hamper their electoral prospects.
The bill quickly collapsed. Democrats are now left hoping that the episode will shift the political landscape — at least slightly — in Biden’s favor.
“I think he should be very, very clear, and go out across the country and point out how there was a compromise solution, with funds, that would have made a material difference in border security and it was rejected at the direction of former president Trump by the Republicans,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.). “And that’s not the way you govern effectively.”
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.