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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema outlines border deal negotiations

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

It appears that any hope of Congress passing a border security deal is fading. Republicans backed away from a bipartisan Senate package that paired border security measures with assistance to Israel and Ukraine. That's amid growing criticism from the right. Joining us now was one of the chief negotiators of that deal, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, an independent from Arizona. Senator, welcome.

KYRSTEN SINEMA: Well, it's great to be with you, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: One of the latest developments in this situation is that today, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, told Republicans - or told reporters that Republican support had disappeared for the bill you helped negotiate. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: We had a very robust discussion about whether or not this product could ever become law. And it's been made pretty clear to us by the speaker that it will not become law.

PFEIFFER: This was even though yesterday he was urging his Republican colleagues to support it. What do you think changed?

SINEMA: Well, you know, Sacha, it's hard to answer that question because I'm not quite sure what did change. You know, four months ago, when my Republican colleagues demanded that border security be included in a national security supplemental package, I stood up and joined them and said, yes, I agree. The border has been an unmitigated crisis in Arizona for most of my life, and we've all seen how devastatingly bad it's been in recent months. And that's why I set (inaudible) around to negotiate this package with Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma and Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

And to be clear, over the last four months, we have negotiated with the Wall Street Journal now calls the strictest set of migration policies seen in decades. So we came out with a very robust, very major package on Sunday evening. And, you know, something happened between Sunday evening and today, when many of my Senate colleagues decided that they actually don't want to secure the border. And, you know, that's their choice, but it's clear that folks changed their mind.

PFEIFFER: Well, it is interesting that the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, which tend to be very conservative, were supporting that deal. Now, President Biden, of course, is blaming former President Trump for the collapse. Do you agree with that?

SINEMA: Well, Sacha, each senator is an individual elected by his or her constituents to represent their state. And each of us are responsible to our state, to our constituents. We each all, as adults, make our own decisions about how we will vote on any given package, any given proposal that comes in front of the Senate. So the responsibility for the decisions of each senator rests solely with each senator. This is our choice. We each get to make this decision, and each person should be held responsible for their own decision. So the real question, Sacha, is - and this will - this question will come up tomorrow - when we vote on this package, senators will get to decide, do you or do you not want to secure the border.

PFEIFFER: And you're - to go back to the question about how much of a role you think Trump played in this, do you think that's kind of the invisible or maybe not-so-invisible hand here?

SINEMA: Well, I think that's a question for those senators who may have changed their minds. You know, four months ago, when my Republican colleagues said, you know, Kyrsten, we've got to secure the border, I said, heck yeah. It's my border. It's my state that has been in crisis for all these years. And it does appear that there are some who were more interested in going on television and complaining about the border than actually voting to secure the border.

PFEIFFER: How sincere do you think Republicans or some Republicans were about wanting to reach a deal?

SINEMA: I can promise you that Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma was 100%, 100% sincere. I chair the border subcommittee in the United States Senate, and James Lankford is the ranking Republican on that committee. He and I have worked together on this committee for over five years. Several years he was the chair, and for the last three years I've been the chair. We are a team working together. When he and I began working on this package, we were aligned on our goals of what to get done to actually secure the border. There's not another Republican in the Senate who's as knowledgeable or as forthright or as honest a broker as Senator Lankford is, particularly on the border. So he was sincere. Others, I can't speak for them.

PFEIFFER: What have these negotiations taught you about what's possible or not possible for a border deal?

SINEMA: Well, in this negotiation, as many folks have noticed, for the first time in - really in my lifetime, we were talking solely about border security. We were not talking about wholesale immigration reform. We did not make any decisions or include anything in our package that changes the status of individuals who have come or who are in our country today. We simply were meeting the crisis of the moment, which is an insecure, broken border that has been exploited by criminal cartels in recent years and has really destroyed our asylum system.

So when James and Chris and I set forth to create this package, we wanted to create a system that was workable and that was airtight, that ended policies like catch and release, that created disincentives for economic migrants to come into the country unlawfully and that allowed our government to actually gain operational control of the border. We were able to negotiate that package. It was very difficult, and we did it. What's been disappointing to see today are that the very folks who said that this was so critical and that had to happen, are now saying that they would rather not actually address the problem at all.

PFEIFFER: Even though this seems to be falling apart, is there at least some consensus, around certain issues or topics, things that everyone, for the most part, seems to agree on?

SINEMA: Well, to be clear, I thought that we had that consensus on Sunday, when we released our package. You know, when we started this conversation, we agreed a couple things. No. 1, the asylum system is broken and has been exploited by cartels. It is being used inappropriately by cartels to bring economic migrants into the country whom have no path to citizenship in our country. That is unfair to them, and it is unfair to our country. So we agreed on that. We also agreed that we should have an ability to maintain and operationalize control on the border. We do not have that control right now. So we had agreement on those concepts. But, Sacha, what it - appears to be clear is that we don't have agreement on what I think is the most fundamental question, which is, do you actually want to solve the problem?

PFEIFFER: Of course, there were some Republicans saying, it's not a good bill. It's very flawed. Did you consider it imperfect, but this being a case of don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good? Did you feel it was good enough?

SINEMA: I have never once in my career voted on a perfect piece of legislation. No such thing exists. Every time you negotiate a bipartisan agreement, you give and you get and you come to a compromise. That is the nature of passing legislation. But what I can tell you, Sacha, over the years that I have negotiated many, many, many major bipartisan packages is this - when you have a shared commitment to get to your end result and you're willing to compromise and work hand in hand together to solve the problem, you can do it. It is if everyone actually wants that goal. That is how you get there.

PFEIFFER: Briefly, if this deal didn't work, do you know what it would take to get a workable deal?

SINEMA: You know, I'm not sure I can answer that question for you. That question is probably better asked to the individuals who said they wanted a deal and then don't actually want one.

PFEIFFER: That is Senator Kyrsten Sinema, an independent representing Arizona. Thank you for your time.

SINEMA: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.