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The Hill
The Hill
5 Jan 2024
Emily Brooks

NextImg:Speaker Johnson weighs trying to negotiate border directly with White House

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is considering trying to negotiate directly with the White House on border policy changes that have so far been confined to a bipartisan group of Senate negotiators.

A source familiar confirmed that Johnson said on a Thursday call with first-term GOP lawmakers that he was weighing talking to the White House directly on border matters, as Punchbowl News first reported Friday.

Such a move would mark a change in strategy for the Speaker, as talks drag on in the Senate over border policy changes, which GOP lawmakers have said is a condition of approving additional aid to Ukraine. 

But for now, the talks remain confined to the Senate.

Even if Johnson wants to take up talks with the White House, it is not clear that channel would be open. The White House threw cold water on the idea of negotiating with Johnson on the border.

“There’ve been talks for weeks,” Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young told reporters Friday morning when asked about the possibility of dealmaking with Johnson. “Now, I know where the Speaker 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.”

“That is not serious,” Young added of Johnson’s potential move. “There [are] talks going on. I’m sure no one’s gonna tell the Speaker, if he wants to be involved in that, that he couldn’t be involved in that.”

When asked about the negotiations until now, Johnson has consistently called on the Senate to take up the H.R. 2 Secure the Border Act, the House GOP’s border bill that would in part limit asylum protections and restart construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border — legislation Democrats have dismissed.

“When the House clings to H.R. 2 as the only solution … we’re not going to get a deal,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters earlier this week.

On the flip side, there is no indication that House Republicans will accept whatever deal comes out of the Senate — and hard-line conservatives have been getting more aggressive on border issues, calling for a government shutdown if the Biden administration does not meet their demands on the policy changes.

Public jockeying over border policy has already started between the White House and Speaker’s office.

On Friday, Raj Shah, Johnson’s deputy chief of staff for communications, released a memo accusing the White House of using “phony numbers” in its talking points. He pointed to fact check articles that said a White House claim that Republicans wanted “to eliminate over 2,000 Border Patrol agents,” based on a House GOP-passed bill that was a starting point for border negotiations last year.

And Shah called the administration’s $14 billion supplemental border funding request “more smoke & mirrors.”

“From the start of President Biden’s term, 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 memo said.

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White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates fired back by repeating one of the same claims from the GOP memo.

“Today’s memo proves we struck a nerve by highlighting House Republicans’ actions to eliminate 2,000 Border Patrol agents and weaken our crackdown on fentanyl,” Bates said in a statement, later charging: “Speaker Johnson and House Republicans left Washington for an early vacation in mid-December while President Biden and Senators from both parties continued working to find common ground.”

The House was scheduled since the start of the year to depart Washington in mid-December. Johnson, who has called on Biden to take executive action to stem the flow of migrants into the U.S., has also swiped Biden on vacationing in St. Croix after Christmas rather than taking those actions.

The Speaker has made migration policy and enforcement a major focus of the new year, leading a delegation of more than 60 Republicans to the border in Eagle Pass, Texas, this week.

“In summary, 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 said in a press conference from the border Wednesday.

Battles over the border do not stop with negotiating legislation. 

The House Homeland Security Committee is also planning to hold its first hearing next week on impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over his enforcement of Biden administration border policy.

Alex Gangitano contributed.