In Washington this Christmas season, Joe Biden faces a presidency-defining moment. He can cut a deal with congressional Republicans to reform immigration laws and fund allies in Taiwan, Ukraine and Israel, or he can play to his base that opposes any tightening of America’s lax immigration procedures and risk geopolitical catastrophe.

According to polls, the president is in bad shape. In the benchmark RealClearPolitics polling average, Biden is losing to his two likeliest Republican challengers: by two points to former President Donald Trump and by six points to former Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. Biden’s approval/disapproval is a remarkable 16 points underwater. Biden’s bad poll numbers began with the catastrophic US pullout from Afghanistan in August 2021. A foreign policy win would help to change his political fortunes and stave off electoral defeat next November. 

A mélange of Congressional views

Biden faces a Congress that is all over the place on national security issues. Some Republicans are convinced that Biden’s Ukraine strategy is not strong enough. Other Republicans want to have nothing to do with Ukraine. Some Senate Democrats are leery of unfettered aid to Israel, while the House Progressive Caucus (left-wing Democrats) are calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and are increasingly sceptical of ongoing aid to Ukraine without a negotiated endgame. At the same time, criticism of the United States’ long-term, carefully calibrated strategy of “ambiguity” with respect to Taiwan churns just below the surface of Congress’ concerns about Biden’s foreign policy.

The potential deal with Republicans revolves around Biden’s request on 20 October that Congress provide US$106 billion to support Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and border enforcement agencies. House Republicans, generally dubious of Ukraine aid and particularly of Biden’s management of that relationship, passed only the US$14.3 billion in aid to Israel on 2 November. The Senate considered a legislative package largely in accord with Biden’s original request that failed on a party line vote on 7 December. The fundamental policy difference comes down to Ukraine.

Two forms of Ukraine scepticism

House Republican scepticism of aid to Ukraine comes in two forms. The more publicised form is a partisan, isolationist unwillingness to support US taxpayer dollars for a foreign conflict in which victory is not assured and the geopolitical benefit is murky. Perhaps 40 of the 220 House Republicans align with this view, best expressed by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene:

"The Ukraine scam is up. If our Republican majority in Congress funds Joe Biden's war against Russia on behalf of Ukraine (because he's a puppet on strings) then Republicans are tools of the foreign war loving deep state. DEFEND AMERICA FIRST!!!"

The other, more widely-held (perhaps 100 of the 220 House Republicans) but less-publicised form is the view of Republican defence hawks who want Biden to commit to more support than what he had proposed. Led by the chairs of the Foreign Affairs, Armed Services and Intelligence Committee Reps. Mike McCaul, Mike Rogers and Mike Turner, the “three Mikes” wrote a memo to their colleagues, “Proposed Plan for Victory in Ukraine,” criticising the president for a failing strategy and urging better weapons systems at a quicker tempo:

“Biden’s mantra of supporting Ukraine “for as long as it takes” is a losing strategy. Instead, House Republicans believe President Biden should present a credible plan for victory and arm Ukraine with the weapons it needs to win as soon as possible.”

The remaining Republicans — 80 or so swing members — want concessions in exchange for aid to Ukraine. That means changes in immigration policy to address the crisis on America’s southern border.

An unprecedented migrant crisis

The flow of undocumented migrants and refugees coming into the United States from Mexico is at record highs. Migrant encounters at the Mexico border have risen steeply this year, with almost 270,000 border encounters in September. Immigrants are ending up in northern cities like Boston, Chicago and New York, where they need housing and other social services. In August, New York City mayor Eric Adams called on the federal government to declare a state of emergency. Adams, a Democrat, has said the cost of providing services to migrants is bankrupting the city and is unsustainable. Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson and Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey, both liberal Democrats, have urged Biden to tighten border policies.

This is a huge departure from 2020 when, at the urging of liberal policy advocates, many Democratic presidential candidates were pledging to abolish the Immigration and Customs

Enforcement Agency (ICE). Still, most congressional Democrats are highly sceptical of changing border policy. House Progressive Caucus leaders stated their opposition to any border policy changes: “We raise our strong opposition to any emergency supplemental funding bill that seeks to establish new immigration and border policy or authorities.”

By including border security funds in his request to Congress, Biden established the link to aid to Ukraine. Congressional Republicans have now added even stronger border policy changes to the mix, an entirely reasonable move given the bipartisan concern over the migration crisis. While the negotiations over border policy compromises will be difficult, President Biden has an opportunity to achieve a major victory for his administration.

Game-changing opportunity

As a senator in the 1990s, Joe Biden negotiated United Nations funding compromises with the late Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a conservative icon. As vice president, he worked out several budget compromises with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Now as president, he can be the author of a dramatic deal with congressional Republicans that will provide badly-needed aid to allies in Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan and begin to address the border crisis that is slamming American cities. Will he grab this opportunity? The bet here is that he will, and thus rearrange the board for the presidential election next year.