Billings Gazette: Border deal crucial, says Tester

by Tom Lutey

If the number of attempted crossings at the U.S. southwest land border are anything like what they were last year, there will be 1.4 million people apprehended, and more than 2 million interactions with U.S. Border Patrol.

What is increasingly likely is that there won’t be a congressional vote to address the crisis. Congressional Republicans began signaling this week that they are pulling support from legislation strengthening border security. The catalyst for the about face was Donald Trump’s suggestion that Republicans should oppose a bill to address a record number of immigrants crossing the border. Crossings in December exceeded 225,000, a new record according to U.S. Homeland Security.

Trump, the party’s presumptive nominee for president in the 2024 general election, is discouraging GOP lawmakers from negotiating a border security package, which could hand a win to President Joe Biden.

But Democratic Sen. Jon Tester tells Lee Montana newspapers that negotiations aren’t over. The three-term lawmaker from Big Sandy said a Southern Border package collapse in January would portend some major problems ahead for other priority legislation, including the months past-due farm bill, and passing a federal budget by the September end of the federal fiscal year.

Congress is now five months beyond the budget deadline for 2024.

“I hope it’s not completely collapsed. I’m not going to approach it from that standpoint. It’s too important of an issue to play politics with, quite honestly,” Tester said of the border security package. “It really upsets me that when people are making decisions based on keeping an issue alive for the next election when in fact, we’ve got a problem and we’ve got a solution in front of us.

“We need to support it, or not. Vote on it. Get it to the floor. Debate it and make changes to it. We need to get the doggone thing going,” he said.

Details of the border security bill are scarce, which has made it possible for critics to claim the agreement between Republican Senate leaders and Biden doesn’t do enough, while supporter of agreement state the opposite.

The agreement includes new technology for detecting fentanyl during inspections, Tester said. He’s carried bills to boost the level of technology used for border security. U.S. Customers and Border Protection indicates that most fentanyl crosses the border at ports of entry hidden in vehicles, including 4,600 pounds since October. A 2-milligram dose is considered potentially lethal, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

“The fentanyl is coming across in cars and trucks. There’s some coming across in backpacks, but the vast majority is coming across in cars and trucks. And if you can, for lack of a better term, x-ray these cars and trucks, stop the ones that do and kick them out, that’s a big, big, step forward,” Tester said. “Increased manpower with some technology, both visual and cables running across the border can help with the folks who are crossing illegally.”

Senate Republicans working on the border security package told the Hill this week that it was harmful to sideline border security work because of election politics. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly told his caucus a week ago that Republicans weren’t likely to pass a better deal if they had majorities in both congressional chamber and the presidency.

House Republican opposition to the agreement was more solid. Eastern District U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale was balking at the border agreement weeks before Trump weighed in. Rosendale introduced legislation January 12 to reimpose the policy turning southern border immigrants back into Mexico to wait for asylum hearings.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2022 sided with Biden in upholding the president’s power to undo the remain-in-Mexico policy that originated during the Trump presidency.

Earlier this month, Rosendale told Lee Montana newspapers there was no need for a border security deal. House Republicans backed a border security bill over a year ago, that the congressman said would do the job.

“The House of Representatives delivered HR 2 to the Senate late last spring. And it’s got the provisions for the remain-in-Mexico policy so that people that are trying to claim asylum, have to wait in Mexico until their case actually has a hearing. It has provisions in there to make sure that ICE is directed to carry out their statutory obligation to identify through raids, or whatever means, where illegals are and to deport them,” Rosendale said. “It has provisions in there to make sure that we continue to build the security system, which includes fiber optics, cameras, lighting, roads, and all of the above to make sure that our border is actually secure.

“What we have discovered is that when you start implementing those laws, that it not only slows down how many people are entering into the country dramatically, but it also reduces the amount of people that are starting to try and get to our country from other places,” Rosendale said.

House Republicans plan to have a floor vote next week on whether to start impeachment proceedings against Alejandro Mayorkas, Homeland Security secretary. Rosendale was one of the lawmakers who filed the bill to calling for the secretary’s impeachment.