Republicans’ headache: Cutting a border deal with a DHS chief they loathe

Senate Republicans are working closely with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas as they try to craft a bipartisan border security deal.

Which creates a new problem for the GOP negotiators: If they succeed, they’ll need to sell that deal to colleagues who loathe Mayorkas and, later, House Republicans who are trying to impeach him.

Mayorkas’ role in the high-stakes border talks is confined to policy proposals, not politics. He’s participating to assess border changes without deciding what the White House might ultimately back, according to a person familiar with the talks who was granted anonymity to address them.

His presence is nonetheless a conundrum for Republicans — many of whom will get asked to vote for legislation that bears the mark of a Biden official they have fought for literally a decade.

“I’m skeptical” of the DHS secretary, said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has clashed with Mayorkas since the Obama administration. “Hearing for three years that the border’s secure when every day, you can see it's not secure? He’s living in dreamland.”

At the moment, Mayorkas’ talks with Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) are advancing despite facing huge hurdles. They’ve made progress on changes to asylum standards but remain at odds over dialing back the president’s parole authority and new expulsion authority, according to a second person briefed on the talks.

After the Senate left for the year on Wednesday, discussions are set to continue throughout the holiday season. Mayorkas’ involvement may not squash GOP support for any deal to pair new migration limits with Ukraine aid. But it undoubtedly complicates the already delicate task of selling that agreement to Republicans who are loath to compromise.

“I don’t think Mayorkas gets it done. I mean, you’ve seen his performance on the border, it’s worse than abysmal," Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said. “We have him up for hearings. And he sits there and says the border’s secure. He's not even dealing with reality.”

In the House, Mayorkas’ impeachment is taking a back seat to the impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden — but even GOP lawmakers who don’t favor going that far are not fans of the DHS chief. And one of Republican senators’ biggest challenges is ensuring they cut a deal that the GOP-controlled House can support.

Mayorkas’ presence is particularly tricky on that front, given that support for impeaching him is growing among House Republicans. Even former skeptics like Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) are now ready to boot the DHS chief from office, and Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) is working to court moderates. Gonzales and his centrist allies are some of the same Republicans whom senators hope might vote for any deal on new border restrictions.

And as Republicans recoil, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Mayorkas' engagement was one of the most critical aspects of the whole talks.

“We made sure Mayorkas was in the room. He’s very, very helpful. He knows the details,” Schumer said in an interview.

Republicans are arguing that Biden will ultimately close any deal, not Mayorkas, since the Cabinet secretary is charged with getting a deal that functionally works, not counting votes. The technical information he provides is integral to the talks, according to senators in both parties.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said that without Mayorkas, “I don’t know how you’d reach an agreement that would work.”

While the White House seeks to protect Joe Biden (center) from the deluge of criticism surrounding the border, Alejandro Mayorkas (right) is occasionally taking heavy blowback from the left as well as Republicans.

Even those who don’t particularly like him concede that it makes sense for Mayorkas to dig into the negotiations. And he’s certainly not there to be the chief spokesperson: As he enters and exits the Capitol meetings, he does not engage with reporters and rarely utters more than pleasantries.

“He still has the president's confidence, evidently, so it seems natural to me that he’d be at the table,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.).

As to Mayorkas’ stewardship of the department, Young added: “Pathetic.”

Republicans are livid about Mayorkas’ recent testimony on Capitol Hill that the administration's approach is “working” as border flows hit daily highs. The GOP’s beef with him is long-standing: He received zero Republican supporters 10 years ago to become deputy secretary and just six GOP votes in 2021 in his confirmation to lead the department.

Many immigration policy advocates and former administration officials view Mayorkas as the administration’s scapegoat on the hot-button issue of immigration. He has the often thankless jobs of unveiling challenging policy announcements and defending the Biden administration’s record, even as immigration policy extends well beyond DHS.

"He’s carrying out the direction from the White House. I believe if he had freer reign, he would take different approaches,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who voted for Mayorkas in 2021. “I hope these bipartisan discussions will give him the tools that he desperately needs.”

Mayorkas lawyered up earlier this year to combat House GOP efforts to impeach him. Protesters even targeted his Washington home. But despite the pressure, a third person who’s worked closely with him — granted anonymity to speak candidly about the secretary — described him as a “good soldier” with a high tolerance for chaos.

While the White House seeks to protect Biden from the deluge of criticism surrounding the border, Mayorkas is occasionally taking heavy blowback from the left as well as Republicans.

“No man has done more to take on ... one of the largest policy and political topics in this country than Secretary Mayorkas,” said Jason Houser, the former chief of staff at Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Biden. “The secretary has been out almost on an island.”

Still, some immigration advocates warn Mayorkas’ credibility may suffer if a deal comes together that is opposed by progressives and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Mayorkas “would be forever tied to these policies that he had always previously marked as too extreme,” said one former Biden and Obama administration official, delivering that warning on condition of anonymity.

He is publicly pleading for more border funding, telling lawmakers the $13.6 billion included in the president’s national security funding request would help “tremendously” with border enforcement by providing money for additional personnel and technology. He’s said that he's open to border policy changes but pushes for broader immigration reform instead of smaller-scale policies.

“We fully endorse the need for policy changes, not in piecemeal form, but in a comprehensive form," Mayorkas told lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Committee last month.

Yet the administration now finds itself forced to consider such piecemeal proposals. Republicans hemmed in Biden’s $106 billion foreign aid request until Democrats made concessions on the border. There’s little talk of comprehensive overhauls lately and no hint of any legalization of undocumented immigrants.

And until Biden gives more forceful direction to Democrats, Republicans don’t see the border talks concluding with them cutting a deal with Mayorkas, anyway.

“I’m told that he’s trying to help. He’s very knowledgeable. But he doesn't have any authority,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “We’re not going to reach any kind of agreement until the president tells us what, if anything, he's willing to do to secure the border.”

Jordain Carney contributed to this report.

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