What’s next for border funding?

Greg Nash

Congress might punt again on a border funding bill when it returns in September.

The House and Senate scrambled to move bills to give federal agencies extra money to handle the surge in unaccompanied child migrants crossing the southern border before their five-week recess.

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But lawmakers ultimately left town in August without sending a measure to President Obama’s desk or with concrete plans for how they will handle the issue when they return.

The two chambers found themselves far apart, with House Republicans approving a $694 million bill and the Senate failing to move their $2.7 billion measure.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson earlier this month said he was “left with no choice” and shifted $405 million away from other homeland security programs to provide sufficient resources at the border.

Johnson urged lawmakers to approve the Obama administration's $3.7 billion request when it reconvenes.

"I hope when Congress returns in September it will act quickly on the request," he said.

But now the House might not even take up border funding when it comes back to Washington. Some House Republicans question whether extra money is really needed, noting that DHS has the ability to reallocate funds.

"Currently, it is not clear that additional funding would be necessary,” said an aide on the House Appropriations Committee. “However, as always, the Committee will take under consideration any new requests from the agencies.”

Moreover, a sharp decline in the number of migrants crossing the border may keep the issue on the backburner.

The Department of Homeland Security reported a decline in the number of apprehensions at the southern border in July.

Immigration experts counter that apprehensions historically go down in the summer largely due to the intense heat in regions near the border.

Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, said that apprehensions typically drop in late summer and do not start to peak again until early spring.

Rosenblum cautioned, however, that the recent spike in unaccompanied minors may not follow historical trends.

"This recent surge is definitely historically unique,” said Rosenblum. “We've just never seen numbers like this.”

Some lawmakers have been working over the August break to find a way forward.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), the only Democrat to vote in favor of the House GOP's border package, said the decrease in apprehensions shouldn't lift the pressure on Congress to provide extra funding.

"Yes, numbers have gone down, but I don't think we can satisfied," Cuellar said in an interview with The Hill from Mexico City.

Cuellar said he has been in contact with colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee and in the Senate, and plans to meet with Secretary Johnson in the coming days to discuss a potential compromise.

He declined to go into detail about his "ideas" until after he meets with the Homeland Security chief.

"Without giving myself away… I think there might be a way to accomplish what we want to do," Cuellar said. 

The Texas Democrat hinted that a "compromise" may involve dropping changes to a 2008 trafficking law included in the House package.

That would be a shift for Cuellar, who was alone among his Democratic colleagues in advocating for changes to the trafficking law so that children from Central America could be sent back to their home countries faster.

But dropping those changes might not fly with Republicans, who insisted upon modifying the 2008 law as a condition to approving the emergency border funds.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said repeatedly that amending the law was "non-negotiable." 

In the upper chamber, a $2.7 billion border package failed to advance on a procedural vote before senators left Washington.

A Senate aide said that the chamber expects to take up the issue again, but it is unclear whether it will be in September or after the new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.

A compromise could be even harder with lawmakers in both parties already looking ahead to November's elections.

If Congress does reach a deal on funding, it could be included in an omnibus appropriations bill expected after the elections.

Attaching the border funds to the stopgap-funding bill, known as a continuing resolution, to avoid a government shutdown on Oct. 1 is unlikely. Appropriators are reluctant to jeopardize the measure's passage ahead of the midterms with such a controversial issue.