Legislation addressing the immigration crisis faces an uphill battle in the House and Senate because of a partisan divide over how to speed the deportation of unaccompanied minors at the southern border.
Republicans warn a $4.3 billion emergency spending bill in the Senate will not have enough votes to pass unless it includes language amending the 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which has been blamed for the migration spike.
They estimate Boehner needs 50 to 60 Democratic votes to pass it because conservative members are leery about emergency spending, which adds to the deficit, and want a harder line taken against the illegal immigrants.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for the Speaker, said, “It is impossible to speculate about votes until we actually have a proposal, which we do not have yet.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) on Wednesday warned against changing the 2008 trafficking law or sending National Guard units to the border, imperiling GOP support for her bill.
She argued young illegal immigrants should not be blamed for the crisis.
“Our problem is not the children,” she said. “We have to go after what causes the children to come, and that’s the drug dealers, the smugglers, the coyotes, those that are engaging in such violent crime.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has teamed up with Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas) on a bill that would change the 2008 law so that Central American minors can be treated the same way as minors from Mexico and Canada. As it stands now, illegal immigrants from Mexico and Canada can be deported quickly, while minors hailing from other countries cannot.
Cornyn, the Senate GOP whip, has reached out to Democrats in the upper chamber in recent days.
If he can win over a few colleagues from across the aisle, his party could apply enormous pressure on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to attach the Cornyn legislation to the emergency spending bill.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat from West Virginia, said he is “very interested” in Cornyn’s proposal.
“We’re looking very seriously at that,” he said.
One of the chamber’s most vulnerable incumbents this cycle, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), said she might support attaching a policy change to the supplemental but has not made a final decision.
Other endangered Democrats declined to comment.
Senior Democrats including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) vowed Wednesday to oppose adding policy changes to the spending bill.
“Not the ones that Cornyn suggests,” he said of potential changes to the trafficking law.
Reid declined during a press conference Wednesday to say what he will do.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had earlier indicated she was open to changing the 2008 law, made it clear on Wednesday that she opposes the Cornyn-Cuellar bill.
“I do think the bill that was introduced is exactly the wrong way to go,” she told The New York Times. “Is the only immigration bill we’re going to have one that hurts children?”
Meanwhile, Arizona GOP Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake plan to introduce legislation that could build Democratic support for overhauling the process for dealing with minors from Central America.
They have called for creating 5,000 visas so that children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador can pursue asylum requests with U.S. embassies in their own countries instead of coming to the border.
Passing the border supplemental in the Senate could require adding pieces of the proposals sponsored by Cornyn, McCain and Flake to garner 60 votes and overcome a filibuster.
A GOP aide said House Republican leaders are waiting for a report from a working group headed by Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) before deciding their next steps.
Granger’s task force is expected to make three recommendations. One would treat minor immigrants the same as those from Mexico and Canada, dramatically speeding the timeframe for sending them home. Another would address border security options and examine the possibility of deploying the National Guard to the border. The third would suggest ways to ensure that children repatriated to Central America are treated humanely and have an infrastructure in place to accept them.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said that the funding aspect of the House legislation is “ready,” but added that he still needs the policy recommendations from the working group.
“We’re ready on the money part. We’ve got to craft it, get it scored,” Rogers said. “As soon as we get the final policy inserts, we can go pretty quickly.”
He said the policy change to the 2008 law will be included in the final bill.
“Changing the 2008 law is not negotiable,” he said.
Granger told reporters Wednesday afternoon that her group was still working on its report.
Rogers declined to offer a spending figure; GOP sources say it is likely to be around $1.5 billion, which is enough to fund the relevant federal agencies through the end of the year. Republicans say the rest of amount requested by President Obama should be allocated through the regular appropriations process.
Durbin balked at that plan.
“That’s problematic because the regular appropriations process is stalled at this point and adding $2.2 billion would be quite a challenge,” he said.
Passing the emergency funding package in the House could be difficult, both for fiscal reasons and because of a desire among some conservatives to take a harder line. A significant number of Republicans might oppose it if there are no offsets.
“I’m not in favor of giving him any more money at this stage,” Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas) said of Obama.
It could be hard for Boehner to round up Democratic votes to make up for GOP defections. Many Democrats, particularly members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, oppose changing the 2008 trafficking law.
“I think it short-circuits due process for the children,” said Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) said of the Cornyn-Cuellar bill.
Obama met with members of the caucus Wednesday afternoon to discuss the issue.
Afterward, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) said members emphasized to Obama that they want the 2008 law to “stay intact.”
“We asked him to be bold,” Sanchez said. “He was very straight-forward about the fact that just because a child is in a poor situation, doesn’t mean the child should stay. There are lots of children around the world in that situation.”
Asked if the president backs changing the law, Sanchez said he “didn’t indicate one way or another.”
Caucus members say they didn’t discuss the Cornyn-Cuellar legislation.
Senior Obama administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, briefed senators Wednesday evening. Lawmakers said it was a reprise of testimony from last week warning that government agencies would run out of money soon unless Congress acts.
Amie Parnes contributed.