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Democrats lean in on border security as Republicans scuttle deal

By Priscilla Alvarez and Lauren Fox, CNN

Democrats are doing what three months ago might have seemed unthinkable for the party in an election year: preparing to go on offense on border security.

After months of migrant surges at the US southern border and a barrage of GOP attacks against the president and his administration for the handling of the crisis, Democrats see a window of opportunity to seize on House Republicans’ threats to tank a border compromise at the behest of former President Donald Trump who wants to campaign on the issue.

And they say they aren’t going to waste it.

“It’s the closest we’ve come in decades and they’re rejecting it so they can’t blame us,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat said.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday also lay the blame squarely on Republicans, after embracing a tougher posture on border security over the weekend: “Give me the power, I asked them the very day I got into office. Give me the Border Patrol, give me the people, give me the judges, give me the people who can stop this and make it work.”

The strategy is already playing out on the campaign trail.

Last week, Democratic candidate Tom Suozzi, who is running in a special election to replace former Rep. George Santos of New York, essentially crashed a news conference his opponent held on immigration. When they were done, Suozzi held his own gaggle with reporters and offered a rebuttal and an outline of bipartisan solutions to fix the border, something he was heavily involved in when he served in Congress back in 2019.

“It is a better issue to run on now than it was 10 days ago because of the fact that the deal is so close,” Suozzi told CNN in an interview Tuesday.

The emerging border deal that’s been the subject of weekslong talks among Senate negotiators would overhaul asylum and give the president new emergency authority to shut down the border, marking a departure from decadeslong protocol.

And Democrats are largely embracing the opportunity to talk about it, even as some argue it could hurt the party with their base and includes provisions that are far more conservative than what they would have embraced even a year ago. There is also the not so small issue of the fact that the text of the bill hasn’t been released yet.

Still, Speaker Mike Johnson has signaled publicly and privately the bill isn’t going anywhere in the House. House Republicans, meanwhile, are pressing forward with the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas who played a role in the border negotiations.

That confluence of factors, Democratic lawmakers and strategists say, is giving Democrats an opportunity.

“It’s clear that when it comes to border security, Democrats are for the fix, and Republicans are for the fiction,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat from California, told CNN.

It’s that simple, boiled down messaging, one Democratic strategist explained, that is finally giving Democrats a bit of an upper hand.

“Democrats have an opportunity to go on the offensive here. To clearly point out how unserious Republicans are on border security.” the Democratic strategist said.

“We had a tough deal. And they chickened out,” they added, referring to Republicans.

Biden leans in on border security

In a fiery speech to South Carolina Democrats on Saturday, Biden touted the emerging border deal and vowed to shut down the border if given the authority by Congress.

“It would also give me as president the emergency authority to shut down the border until it could get back under control. If that bill were the law today, I’d shut down the border right now and fix it quickly,” he said, calling on Congress to “get it done” amid deep division on the issue.

It was first time in a campaign setting in this cycle that Biden has actively taken that stance on the border, though his campaign has been drawing sharp contrasts between his immigration policies and those of Trump.

“We are going to keep focusing on the offense on Trump and his failure and his extreme rhetoric on immigration,” a campaign official told CNN, citing public polling showing that the majority of voters want to see a border solution, like an increase in border agents, that Biden has proposed.

The Biden campaign has slammed Trump for his record on immigration, his anti-immigrant rhetoric and what he’s pledged to do if he wins a second term.

But Biden’s willingness to publicly back a deal that would clamp down on border crossings didn’t go unnoticed by Democratic strategists and allies.

“The toughness of it is what’s different. But the overwhelming messaging and frame isn’t different from before: We’ve tried to make progress on this issue and Republicans every step of the way have tried to stop it,” another Democratic strategist said.

“The difference this time around is the administration is willing to go an extra step in terms of enforcement in a way that advocates, and the left, aren’t happy about and still Republicans refused to make that happen,” they added.

But Republicans argue that Democrats don’t have credibility on the issue with the electorate.

“Let’s have this battle right now. We know what the border was previous to this administration,” said Rep. John Duarte, a Republican from California. “We know very, very clearly what Joe Biden’s failures and the Democrats’ failures at the border have been.”

“If that is what they want to talk about, that’s great because it’s what we want to talk about,” he added.

Progressives express concern over Biden’s border sentiment

Biden’s remarks from over the weekend, an extension of a statement released by the White House a day prior, didn’t sit well with everyone in his own party.

Democratic Rep. Nanette Barragán of California told CNN she was disappointed with the president’s statement.

“I disagree with the president’s statement that the policies that are proposed in the Senate deal are fair. And that they’ve negotiated what I think would setback real comprehensive immigration reform, you know, 10 to 15 years,” Barragán, said, cautioning that she hasn’t seen the text of the border compromise.

Rep. Delia Ramirez, a Democrat from Illinois, called the president’s willingness to give so much on the border issue “dangerous.”

“I think it’s dangerous for our president to be campaigning on this, and it also creates dangerous precedent. And think about that, if we’re willing to put this kind of policy, this draconian policy into supplemental piece of legislation, what’s next? Healthcare? Affirmative action? The list goes on,” Ramirez said.

Notably, the deal isn’t expected to include a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who arrived to the United States as children — a population that’s typically garnered bipartisan support and been included in previous reform packages.

The deal also does nothing to deal with millions more who are living in the US illegally and had been granted a path to citizenship in the 2013 immigration package.

The exclusion of the groups underscores a shift in the Democratic Party bruised by years of migrant surges at the US-Mexico border.

But Beatriz Lopez, deputy director of Immigration Hub, told CNN Americans support a balanced approach on immigration.

“Moving forward, it’s important that he strike that balance,” Lopez said, referring to Biden. “It is about rebuilding his coalition, which includes moderates, but it also includes the base.”

Barragan echoed that approach, saying that Latino voters want to see border security and a path forward for immigrant communities.

“They want to hear that Democrats are fighting for them and we’re fighting to make sure that we address the southern border, but also finding pathways to lift up our immigrant communities and acknowledging the economic contributions of immigrants,” Barragán told CNN.

On Tuesday, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which Barragán chairs, released a set of principles to guide immigration reform. Top of the list was protecting Dreamers.

Despite pushback from progressives over the border compromise, Lopez said it’s too early to know whether the messaging will divide the coalition heading into November.

“We’re stuck in this moment right now in these negotiations, but looking forward, as we get closer to November, they have to appeal to not just swing voters, they have to be able to appeal to their base,” Lopez said.

“Here’s the bottom line: You can’t out Trump,” Lopez added. “You have to be the contrast in order to win.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip and a longtime advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, disagreed that Democrats would suppress the vote with the border compromise.

“No, I’m not worried about it,” Durbin said. “Because the people I represent understand that what’s going on now in unacceptable and has to change.”

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