House Republicans scramble to find votes for border measure

Francis Rivera

Conservative House Republicans struck an optimistic tone on Friday, saying they thought it was possible for a $659 million House border bill to be changed enough to draw their support. 

The conservatives spoke to reporters as they headed into a 9 a.m. conference meeting that could help decide the fate of the legislation.

Members of the GOP whip team met with lawmakers on Thursday night, and some rank-and-file members said if they like the changes they see, it's possible their votes could be won. But those same lawmakers said they needed to see the specific language enacting those changes before they would commit to backing any legislation.

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Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration, said he was inclined to back the bill if the changes came through to his liking.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) struck a similar cautious bent.
 
"We worked out some agreements on things," he said heading into the meeting. "If they put it in the same hands that took Kay Granger's principles ... it'll be a problem."

Rep. Granger (R-Texas) led a House GOP working group on the border that recommended changing a 2008 human trafficking law to make it easier for authorities to send back children from Central America to their home countries. 

Republican leaders were scrambling for votes after pulling their bill from the schedule on Thursday after it became clear it would not pass the House. 

Separately, the Senate on Thursday failed to approve its own border bill. Senate Republicans blocked a $2.7 billion bill backed by Democrats in a 50-44 vote, arguing the bill would do little to stop the wave of children, mostly from Central America, who have been overwhelming border authorities.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) have led opposition to both the Senate and House bills, and Cruz has again been a thorn in the side of House GOP leaders. Cruz has met with King, Gohmert and other critics of the House approach, and urged them to call for tougher steps.

The Senate’s action means that, even if the House approves a bill, it won’t make it to President Obama’s desk before the recess. The Senate will be in session on Friday, but no votes are scheduled.

The main goal of House Republicans, however, is to pass something to show they are responding to the crisis.

An outcry from rank-and-file members pushed GOP leaders to launch a second effort into crafting a bill.

“We'll stay until we vote,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said as he exited a meeting of the House Republican conference Thursday afternoon.

Rep. Rich Nugent (R-Fla.) said leadership will “sit down with each of those members, find out what it would take them to get to a yes. And I don’t think it’s that far apart to get to yes. … Maybe it’s just a matter of education.”

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said the opponents are now “a relatively small group” and even most of them want to remain in Washington to get something done. 

Democrats were relatively united in opposing the GOP measure, meaning the votes would most likely have to come from the GOP side.

That means GOP leaders will face a tall order to move their bill.

Indeed, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said Congress shouldn’t start its recess until the “job is completed” on the border crisis.

The Republican governor of the state at the heart of the crisis said in a statement it was “beyond belief” that Congress is abandoning its post while people are suffering on the border.

“While Texas has taken what steps it can to mitigate the damage caused by a porous border, Congress and the President have a duty to address our border security issues without further delay. Congress should not go into recess until the job is completed,” he said in a statement.

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) said the inability of the House to pass a measure would make it hard for members to face their constituents over the recess.

“I'm going to have some 'splainin' to do,” Farenthold said before it became clear the House would not immediately leave town.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said Sessions was a major influence among the Alabama delegation in opposing the border bill Thursday.

“Jeff Sessions is probably held in higher esteem than the Alabama football coach and the Auburn football coach put together. That's pretty high esteem,” Brooks said.

At the same time, it was clear tensions were simmering between House Republicans and conservative senators like Sessions and Cruz.

“I don’t tell Jeff how to vote. He doesn’t tell me how to vote,” said Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.). “If Ted or Jeff will send us a bill, maybe we can vote on their bill.”

Bachus even went so far as to show his voting card to reporters, noting that it has his face on it and no one else's.

Similarly, many members from Texas were pushing for the House to come together on a bill despite Cruz’s opposition.

Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) thought House Republicans could reach an agreement by the time they reconvene Friday morning. 

“Maybe I'm being overly hopeful here, but I think it's going to be resolved by tomorrow morning,” King said.

Rep. Raúl Labrador said if the House stays too long, he’ll have to miss events on Saturday for his son's wedding.

“If we have to stay here 'til the weekend, then I’m going to miss that. But let’s just get it done,” he said.

— Mike Lillis, Peter Schroeder and Bernie Becker contributed.

— This story was updated at 9:32 a.m.

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