By Cristina Marcos - 07/22/14 06:00 AM EDT
Congress is running out of time to pass an emergency funding measure to address the surge of child immigrants crossing the border.
Both the House and Senate are set to recess for their five-week August break on July 31, and Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on the content and price tag of President Obama’s $3.7 billion request.
Moving an immigration bill is a tall order for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), because Republicans are demanding changes to a 2008 human trafficking law they say is exacerbating the wave of people at the border by making it more difficult to deport them.
Democrats, however, say they will oppose changes to the law. That means Boehner will likely have to rely mostly on Republican votes to move a measure through the House.
And that could be tough, because some in his party are reluctant to send any more money to Obama for use on the border.
The 2008 law allows child immigrants from Central America to request asylum hearings, which triggers a legal process that could take months or even years. The administration says 52,000 young immigrants were apprehended at the border through the end of May, much more than in previous years. The budget request would fund more lawyers and immigration judges.
The White House on Monday also said the number of minors being apprehended at the border has dropped from 355 per day to 150 per day, something that could reduce pressure on Congress to act.
But many lawmakers say it should be inconceivable for Congress to leave Washington without taking action.
“No. No, no, no,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said in response to a question about whether Congress could leave without doing something. “You have agencies that will run out of money.”
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), two of the agencies handling the wave of immigrants, are expected to run out of money within the next two months.
Cuellar and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) have introduced a bill to change the 2008 law, so children from Central American could be sent back to their home countries more quickly.
Cuellar said a middle ground could be reached, as long as Republicans don’t demand anything “radical,” such as reversing President Obama’s 2012 executive action to delay deportations of immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children.
“We certainly have a short period of time,” Cuellar said in an interview with The Hill. “But I think Congress, when they want to pass something, they can move pretty quickly.”
Democrats are ready to hammer Republicans if the House doesn’t move a bill.
“Instead of proposing radical plans to undermine the due process afforded to children under law, Republicans should work with Democrats to pass the emergency funds needed now and fix our broken immigration system once and for all by ending the Republican obstruction of comprehensive immigration reform,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “Further delay is not an option.”
Even some Republicans have said they would take the political fall if Congress can’t agree on a measure.
“If we do that, then we’re going to get blamed for perpetuating the problem,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said earlier this month.
The House GOP working group on the border issue, led by Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), is expected to provide its final recommendations to the rest of the conference this week.
House Republicans are likely to propose pairing the policy changes with funding in the range of $1.5 billion to $2 billion. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) has said the remainder of the Obama administration’s $3.7 billion request could be handled through the regular appropriations process.
Congress is likely to pass a stopgap spending measure when it returns from the August recess to avoid a government shutdown a month before the midterm elections. But it would still need to approve the extra funding for the border enforcement agencies in addition to what is already allocated.
The political landscape this crisis seems to be playing out like the immigration debate as a whole: Obama is underwater on public approval, but Capitol Hill Republicans are faring worse.
An ABC News-Washington Post poll out July 15 found 53 percent supported Obama’s plan to devote $3.7 billion in emergency funding to deal with the influx of children. But only 33 percent of Americans back Obama’s overall immigration views.
Republicans fare even worse on the matter, tallying just 23 percent support for their immigration stance.
The polling suggests that, if push came to shove, Obama and Democrats might have a bit more breathing room with the public than the GOP.
A Gallup poll last week found more Americans saw immigration as the nation’s biggest problem than any other. The share of Americans viewing the issue as the biggest problem more than tripled in the last month, rising to 17 percent.
Cuellar warned that congressional inaction could signal to paid child smugglers, known as “coyotes,” that they had nothing to fear from the U.S. government.
“The smugglers are gonna say, ‘Hey, nothing happened. Let’s keep doing what we’re doing,’ ” Cuellar said.
Peter Schroeder and Justin Sink contributed.