Where no Congress has gone before: Facing galactic-scale fiscal cliff and border security threats

There’s a rush this week to secure a border security accord in the Senate.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has shuttled back and forth to the Capitol multiple times for talks with Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and James Lankford, R-Okla.

Things are so serious that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., even declared she’d “be wearing jeans” to weekend negotiating sessions.

There’s always year-end drama on Capitol Hill. Fights over government funding. The fiscal cliff. Tax policy. It always looks bleak.

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Until it’s not.

“This place is a like a Star Trek episode,” opined Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. “You think the world is going to end and then they fix it in five minutes.”

So are the Klingons bearing down on the U.S. Capitol this holiday season?

We’ll know soon.

They’ve joined the Borg, the Romulans and Species 8472 in a full assault.

The shouts of “battle stations” echo through the marble corridors.

If you listen closely, you can practically hear Scotty hollering up from the engine room in the Capitol basement.

They’re loading photon torpedoes and preparing to fire a full phaser array.

But stand down. 

Some senators hoped they could cut a deal on border security before Christmas.

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Senate negotiators are trying desperately to cut a deal on border security before Christmas – and latch it to a plan to aid Ukraine and Israel.

The foreign assistance part is relatively easy in Congressional terms. But border security coupled with changes to immigration policy? Thom Tillis may be on to something. In Capitol Hill terms, dealing with something as challenging as border policy is practically like seeking “out new life and new civilizations.”

If Congress scored a deal on border security, it would certainly be where no Congress has gone before.

But the bottom line is that nothing is going to happen quickly on a border package.

It’s doubtful the Senate votes on anything this week – let alone negotiators even securing an agreement. That may still be days if not a few weeks away.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., is not recalling the House to consider any border deal before January 8th. The Senate may not even be ready to go at that point.

So dial back the yellow alert on the bridge of the Enterprise. This may not exactly be “a five-year mission,” as they say in Star Trek. The negotiations aren’t still moored in spacedock as the Senate remains in session this week. But any political border pact can’t even move on impulse power let alone make the jump to warp speed.

If you’re waiting, sit back and pop open a can of Romulan ale.

“As we get closer to an agreement, details really matter,” said Murphy. “The drafting of the text is really hard and difficult. Everybody knew that. But that becomes a clearer reality as you start to think about how this will ultimately get written.” 

That said, Murphy has argued in recent years that the goal “is to get this voted on by the end of the year.” He added that “it’s an aggressive schedule.”

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told NBC “this will go into next year.”

Graham and other Republicans are fearful Democrats could sprint.

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“We feel like we’re being jammed,” said Graham.

So this is the balancing act to finish this up.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., intimated last week he was concerned about the talks losing “momentum” if everyone went home for the holidays. Some conservatives worry about any changes to border policies – especially if it’s anything short of what is referred to on Capitol Hill as “HR 2.” That’s Congress-speak for House Resolution 2, a measure which constructs more of the border wall, enhances programs to return migrants who entered the country illegally to their home country and curb asylum claims. Democratic sources tell Fox that some conservatives may try to kill the talks out of fear there could be a bona fide, bipartisan compromise. But not something that conservative lawmakers would endorse.

So this is the tedious path. Cut a deal fast without losing momentum. But not so fast that conservatives feel as though they’re getting jammed.

But what happens if the Senate leaves and there’s no vote? Is it still possible to secure a pact and push a vote into the new year?

This is why it’s believed that any vote in the House and Senate may be weeks away. Certainly well into the new year – if not February.

Don’t forget that the House and Senate have to figure out a way to avoid a government shutdown by January 19. And another funding deadline looms February 2.

That’s why any possibility of voting on a border plan may drift even deeper into the winter.

That’s to say nothing of conservative House members just being skeptical of anything the Senate comes up with – even if it’s engineered by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats. As is often the case in this Congress, House Democrats pull the freight on most major bills in the House even though they’re in the minority. It’s unclear how Johnson could finesse a vote on something as radioactive as border security and immigration. The right is already taking a political two-by-four to Johnson on a regular basis. That’s the same thing that happened to his predecessor, former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. Johnson is sure to be even more bludgeoned following the January and February spending imbroglios. So securing a border deal might be a political challenge for Johnson. 

But there are Democratic skeptics, too.

Some liberals and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are leery of any deal which limits migration, changes asylum rules or alters parole. This isn’t going to be a deal where some Republicans vote yes and lots of Democrats pick up the slack. Democrats are divided on this, too. The cocktail of votes on both the Democratic and Republican sides is very delicate for any sort of immigration/border security bill.

So Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., kept the Senate in session this week in hopes of getting a border deal. There may not be a vote related to the border this week or this month in the Senate. But if there’s ever an agreement, keeping the Senate around for a few days before Christmas will have paid off for Schumer. Even if that vote comes in January or February.

“There is a way out of every box. A solution to every puzzle. It’s just a matter of finding it,” said Enterprise Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek.

A solution to the border has eluded Congress for nearly four decades now. They came close with a Senate bill in 2013. But the House never considered the bill. 

There may be a solution to this puzzle. But like so many times in the past, it’s unclear if Congress can find its way out this particular box.

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