House Republicans fear backlash from punting border bill to the fall

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House Republicans are growing anxious about leaving town for the August recess without passing a border bill.

Ahead of a pivotal conference meeting Friday morning, rank-and-file lawmakers are openly fretting about the questions they would face from constituents if they break from legislative work without taking action to address the surge of child migrants into the United States.

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Many argue that if they fail to pass a bill, even one that is a total nonstarter with Democrats, they’ll give President Obama five weeks of open airtime to pound them as do-nothing obstructionists.

“It needs to be passed before we go to the August constituent work period. I don’t think we ought to go home until we’ve dealt with it,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas). “The president has done a proposal, and if we don’t act on that, or reject that and don’t come up with a solution of our own, public opinion will swing against us. And we’ve already got such great approval ratings.

“I was talking to one member who said, ‘Yea, if we don’t do anything, I’m canceling all my town halls,’ ” he added.

While a working group presented recommendations for changes to border policy at a Wednesday meeting, House Republicans have yet to produce legislation that could be paired with a $1.5 billion spending bill crafted by appropriators.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said Thursday he did not expect a border bill would be released until the beginning of next week, at the earliest.

The Republicans pressing for action on a border bill are at odds with the conservative wing of the House. Those members argue that the right move is to do nothing at all and force the president to address a problem he created with his lax immigration policies.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) met with a group of more than 20 House conservatives Wednesday, where he pushed them not to pass a spending package for the border. He warned that Senate Democrats would take their bill, replace it with their own priorities and send it back.

Cruz said the GOP should vote to defund Obama’s deferred deportation program for children who illegally immigrated to the United States before 2007, arguing it incentivized the flow of child migrants across the border.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) ruled out that approach Thursday, however.

Republicans close to the leadership say inaction could leave the party dangerously exposed for the month of August, as administration officials have warned that some immigration agencies will run out of funds in a few weeks without an emergency infusion.

“There’s a growing concern that we need to do something,” said Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.). “The concern is that nothing will happen, and we’ll go into the August recess, and something bad happens. And Congress hasn’t done anything.”

If the lawmakers who met with Cruz refuse to support the border bill, GOP leaders will need votes from at least some Democrats to reach a majority.

But outside of a small handful of centrists, most House Democrats have been vocally critical of the GOP approach, particularly its push to make changes to a 2008 human trafficking law to make it easier to quickly process Central American children.

Boehner has sought to highlight that the White House originally expressed an interest in changing the trafficking law before going quiet on the matter. He accused the president of “flip-flopping” Thursday and said he needed Obama to reiterate his stance in order to push a bill through.

“I’ve been pretty clear that taking some action to solve this problem is in order,” Boehner said.

Some GOP lawmakers are hopeful that, if emergency legislation is placed on the House floor, several Democrats in border regions and tight reelection races will feel they can’t vote against it.

“Can they, with a straight face, go back home and say, ‘Eh, it’ll take care of itself?’ I don’t think so,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.). “It’s a lot harder to vote no when you’re confronted with the realities of legislation staring you in the face.”

Incoming House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) told reporters Thursday many members of his caucus were eager to act on the issue before the August recess.

"Many conservatives I've talked to want to pass legislation and solve this problem," Scalise said.

The work of passing a bill has been complicated by outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) primary loss.

Scalise technically does not take over the vote-counting duties of majority whip until July 31, when the current whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), takes over Cantor’s role. That also happens to be the last day the House is set to be in session before recess.

Given the tight deadline, Scalise said he is planning to help leadership round up the votes for a border-funding proposal.

"I'll become the whip next Thursday," he said. "In the meantime, I'll be doing what I can to help."

Leadership aides said the meeting of the GOP conference called for Friday was necessary when time ran out to discuss the package at Wednesday’s session.

But lawmakers are also aware that the second powwow comes as leaders are still looking to lock up support for a plan — any plan.

“If it was all hunky-dory, we probably wouldn’t have the meeting,” Huizenga said.

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