Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) played political chess Tuesday, seeking leverage in the battle to respond to the border crisis.
Days before the House and Senate are to adjourn for a five-week recess, there is little chance that legislation dealing with the wave of immigrants crossing the border will reach President Obama’s desk.
House Republicans on Tuesday unveiled a $659 million border bill focused on security and began whipping their members ahead of an expected Thursday vote. That’s one day after the Senate could vote on a much larger $2.7 billion package.
On Tuesday, it appeared that Boehner had a better chance of clearing his bill through the House than Reid had of securing final passage in the 60-vote threshold Senate.
While House Democrats are whipping their members to oppose the GOP bill, there were some signs of optimism from Boehner, who predicted his bill would attract significant support.
However, passing any controversial bill through the House without Democratic support has been extremely challenging for Boehner and his deputies. This will be no exception.
In the Senate, Reid faces a tougher climb. Perhaps sensing the Speaker’s advantage, the wily legislator suggested that if Boehner moved the House border bill to the Senate, it could be amended with the immigration measure that passed the upper chamber in 2013.
“If they pass that, maybe it’s an opening for us to have a conference on our comprehensive immigration reform. If they’re finally sending us something on immigration, maybe we can do that,” Reid told reporters after a lunch meeting with his caucus.
House conservatives have long expressed fears Reid would take that step, and Boehner quickly accused the Democrat of seeking to torpedo the House bill.
“Senator Reid, embarrassed that he cannot strong-arm the Senate into passing the blank check President Obama demanded, is making a deceitful and cynical attempt to derail the House’s common-sense solution,” Boehner said in a statement.
“So let me be as clear as I can be with Senator Reid: the House of Representatives will not take up the Senate immigration reform bill or accept it back from the Senate in any fashion,” Boehner said. “Nor will we accept any attempt to add any other comprehensive immigration reform bill or anything like it, including the DREAM Act, to the House’s targeted legislation, which is meant to fix the actual problems causing the border crisis.”
The moves and countermoves raise interesting questions for the White House, which must decide whether to threaten to veto the House bill.
White House officials declined to say whether the president would veto the legislation.
The GOP’s legislation is much smaller than Obama’s $3.7 billion funding request. It also includes changes to a 2008 human trafficking law that would make it easier to quickly send young immigrants from Central America back to their home countries.
The Obama administration has asked for flexibilities that would give the Homeland Security Department more power to send the immigrants back home, but the changes are strongly opposed by most Democrats.
Complicating the decision further for Obama is the question of whether a veto threat would actually make the House bill less likely to be approved by Republicans. Many conservatives in the House instinctively oppose anything the administration supports and are already wary of sending the White House any money for the border.
Thursday’s House vote is likely to be close.
Republicans believe Democrats in border states or tough races will back their bill, but Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) office said Democratic leaders will whip against it and force Republicans to come up with nearly all the votes themselves.
Republicans can pass the bill with up to 17 defections, assuming no Democrats support it (although at least a handful likely will).
GOP leaders have seen their proposals undercut by conservatives before, but the type of visible criticism that usually accompanied those doomed efforts was not apparent Tuesday.
Staunchly conservative Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) said he is inclined to back the bill.
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who authored a resolution accusing the president of driving the influx of child migrants singlehandedly, said he was undecided on the measure.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who will definitely oppose the GOP bill, declined to say how many were in his corner.
Republican leaders took several steps with their bill to win over conservatives.
After originally discussing a $1.5 billion measure that would fund border operations through 2014, they scaled back significantly and fully offset the cost of the bill with spending cuts.
Roughly two-thirds of the slimmed-down package is reserved for boosting border security and the processing of migrants, while the remaining third would go towards humanitarian assistance. The White House proposed that a majority of funds go toward humanitarian aid.
The bill does nothing to address the president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, however, which Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) and other Republicans blame for the flow of child immigrants.
But the measure does include many of the recommendations outlined by the House GOP border security working group, including changes to the 2008 human trafficking law.
Additionally, the bill would prohibit criminals with drug-related offenses punishable by more than a year of prison time from applying for asylum.
The package would also effectively double funding for the National Guard to assist in Border Patrol activities, and require Central American countries to work to retain and repatriate citizens who came to the U.S. in order to receive $40 million in foreign assistance.
Mike Lillis contributed.