Senate Republicans push to punish 'sanctuary cities'
© Greg Nash

Republicans want to use a largely non-controversial education bill to crack down on so-called "sanctuary cities" in the wake of a San Francisco shooting that garnered national attention.

The recent killing of 32-year old Kathryn Steinle, allegedly shot by an illegal immigrant who had already been deported five times, has sparked a debate over cities that don't carry out all federal immigration laws.

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea GOP state lawmakers meet to plan possible constitutional convention MORE (R-Texas), a presidential contender, as well as Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), have filed an amendment to the Every Child Achieves Act, the Senate's overhaul of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, that would redirect funding meant for sanctuary cities to state and local governments that comply with federal law.

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Sessions accused officials of “deliberately and openly” disregarding federal immigration laws as an “act of defiance.”

“Congress has an obligation to ensure limited taxpayer dollars are not given to cities and counties who refuse to cooperate with federal law enforcement,” he said.

Republican Sen. David Vitter, who is running for governor in Louisiana, has also introduced an amendment cracking down on sanctuary cities to the education bill.

But tying the immigration measure to the education bill, which has so far managed to avoid any political landmines, would likely sink the legislation, which has the strong support of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The conservative push to punish sanctuary cities comes as congressional Democrats have walked a fine line in the wake of the shooting.

Democrats have pressed for more details, but been careful to not directly blame San Francisco’s laws for Steinle’s death, and have shown even less appetite for limiting federal funding to the more than 200 sanctuary cities in the United States.

Republicans have sought to raise pressure on Democrats over the issue.

“Reasonable people can and do differ on issues of border security, interior enforcement and the status of illegal immigrants present in our nation," said Cotton. "We should not disagree about the importance of the rule of law.”

Other Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), another 2016 contender, are also rolling out legislation in the wake of the shooting.

Paul is expected to introduce a measure requiring state and local agencies to tell U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when they’ve arrested an illegal agreement. The agencies would also have to hold someone if ICE requests.

Paul’s proposal would also tie state and local law enforcement grants to compliance with federal immigration laws, according to his office.

The San Francisco shooting has intensified Republican anger over the administration's policies, with sanctuary cities just the latest issue in a years-long fight over immigration.

Cruz, Vitter, Sessions, along with Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, David Perdue (Ga.), John Cornyn (Texas), Mike Lee (Utah), Thom Tillis (N.C.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah), wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson criticizing a government program that outlines when an illegal immigrants should be turned over to the federal government.

They said it “requires immigration law officers and agents to ignore plain law and public safety, solely to the benefit of criminal aliens.”

They have also challenged President Obama directly, suggesting that by refusing to crackdown on cities that don’t comply with federal law he created an environment that made Steinle’s death possible.

Vitter said that under Obama “dangerous criminals are getting a free pass.”

Cruz, meanwhile, acknowledged that while sanctuary cities are an issue, he added that the “problem is exacerbated” by the Obama administration.

“We deal with the problem that the Obama administration consistently refuses to enforce the laws,” he told Fox Business. “[It] is just not the cities who are defying the law. It’s the federal government.”

The battle over sanctuary cities also comes ahead of a year when Republicans will have to defend 24 Senate seats, including a handful in blue-leaning states. 

According to the conservative-leaning Rasmussen Reports, 62 percent of likely voters support the Department of Justice penalizing cities that don’t enforce federal immigration laws.

But the GOP push against sanctuary cities could lead some Republicans into a politically divisive fight on immigration they might hope to avoid.

Adding to the charged debate are GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump's controversial comments about immigration, which garnered pushback from Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus, and divided Republicans.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is up for reelection next year, weighed in Friday, saying the “circus” surrounding the immigration debate is hurting his party.

“If the Republican nominee for president does not support comprehensive immigration reform and border security policy, we have no chance of defeating Hillary Clinton and winning the White House in 2016,” he added.