Senate moving ahead with border bill, despite Trump

Senate moving ahead with border bill, despite Trump
© Greg Nash - Anna Moneymaker

Senate Republicans on Wednesday said legislation is still needed to address the overflow of detained immigrants at the border, but they are unlikely to pick up enough Democrats to get a bill to President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' Trump confirms 2018 US cyberattack on Russian troll farm Trump tweets his support for Goya Foods amid boycott MORE’s desk.

Republicans unveiled a bill that merged a variety of ideas put forth by Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynTexas lawmakers ask HHS to set up field hospital, federal resources in the state GOP senators voice confidence over uphill Senate battle Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE (Texas) and Sens. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations MORE (R-N.C.), Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump tweets his support for Goya Foods amid boycott Trump says he'll sign order with 'road to citizenship' for DACA recipients Texas lawmakers ask HHS to set up field hospital, federal resources in the state MORE (R-Texas) and Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonKoch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad Mellman: Roberts rescues the right? MORE (R-Ark.) as they seek one package that can win the support of the entire GOP conference.

A large group of senators, Democrats and Republicans, met Wednesday afternoon in centrist Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsMore Republicans should support crisis aid for the Postal Service GOP senators voice confidence over uphill Senate battle Republicans considering an outdoor stadium for Florida convention: report MORE’s (R-Maine) office to find shared principles that could serve as the basis for a compromise bill.

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“The idea is to make sure we are bringing people from both sides of the aisle together,” said Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Finger-pointing, gridlock spark frustration in Senate Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE (R-Colo.), who heads the Senate GOP campaign arm and attended the meeting. “Family separation, that’s what we want to stop. How do we come together as two parties to do that?”


Trump diffused the growing political crisis on Wednesday by signing an executive order that authorizes border agents to keep children with their detained parents indefinitely, which will likely end the spectacle of kids being forcibly removed from their families.

Regardless, GOP lawmakers say legislation must move forward.

“It would be helpful to codify some of that stuff. I think it eliminates the uncertainty and potential legal challenges,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP senators voice confidence over uphill Senate battle Senate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Finger-pointing, gridlock spark frustration in Senate MORE (S.D.).

Cornyn, who met with Trump about a trade issue along with other members Wednesday, said the president approved of Congress moving forward with legislation during the White House meeting.

Republicans say a 1997 legal settlement known as the Flores settlement agreement, which does not allow children to be detained at the border beyond 20 days, must be reversed by an act of Congress.

“I think the Flores decision has to be dealt with legislatively,” said Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Romney, Collins, Murkowski won't attend GOP convention MORE (R-Ohio).

Without legislation, Republicans warned that Trump’s executive order could get bogged down or potentially overturned in court, prolonging a political fight that has plagued the administration’s actions on immigration.

“Ultimately it would be ideal if we could back that up by passing a law that does it so there wouldn’t be a court uncertainty,” said Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP chairman vows to protect whistleblowers following Vindman retirement over 'bullying' Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad GOP Miami mayor does not commit to voting for Trump MORE (R-Fla.). “You’re a court ruling away from being back to the same thing, potentially.”

Trump’s decision came after his “zero tolerance” policies that resulted in the separation of migrant families along the U.S.-Mexico border sparked intense, days-long backlash from GOP leadership and high-profile figures in the party.

But Republicans were caught flat-footed by Trump’s controversial policy, and the administration dispatched Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard Sessions Senate outlook slides for GOP Supreme Court blocks order that relaxed voting restrictions in Alabama Justice Dept. considering replacing outgoing US attorney in Brooklyn with Barr deputy: report MORE to a closed-door GOP lunch to try to explain the administration’s thinking.

Trump’s executive order would keep families detained along the border “together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources.”

The order could lessen the chances the Senate ultimately passes legislation, where immigration is a political lightning rod and lawmakers were already running into partisan headwinds as senators lined up behind competing bills.

Underscoring the political tensions, Cruz questioned if Democrats would block legislation so they could use the issue as a political football for November’s midterm elections.

“I’m hopeful Democrats will work with us to end family separation,” Cruz said. “The question is, do congressional Democrats want to actually solve the problem or do they want an issue to campaign on in November?”

Democrats are deeply skeptical about passing a bill that would codify Trump’s order, arguing that it would support his zero tolerance policy of prosecuting illegal border crossers instead of deporting them.

They argue that it’s inhumane to detain children along with their parents indefinitely.

“To the extent that families can stay together that’s a good thing, but indefinite family detention is not a solution to the problem,” said Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezKoch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Thomas Kean wins GOP primary to take on Rep. Tom Malinowski Trump administration moves to formally withdraw US from WHO MORE (N.J.), a leading Democratic voice on immigration.  

“It does not solve the problem,” Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDemocratic lawmakers call for expanding, enshrining LGBTQ rights The Hill's 12:30 Report: Fauci 'aspirationally hopeful' of a vaccine by winter The Hill's Morning Report - Officials crack down as COVID-19 cases soar MORE (D-N.Y.) said of Trump’s order. “Indefinite detainment of families is also inhumane. These children should be in school.”

Gillibrand, who is seen as a possible 2020 presidential candidate, said a narrow bill codifying Trump’s order is insufficient and Congress should instead pass comprehensive immigration reform.

But lawmakers in both parties have warned that broad immigration legislation would never be able to clear Congress. A February immigration fight in the Senate resulted in a stalemate, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Ernst: Renaming Confederate bases is the 'right thing to do' despite 'heck' from GOP Advocacy groups pressure Senate to reconvene and boost election funding MORE (R-Ky.) has shut down holding another broad, freewheeling debate. 

It remains to be seen if McConnell will want to tackle immigration again in the wake of Trump’s executive order. McConnell is co-sponsoring legislation introduced by Tillis and other Republicans on Wednesday. But if immigration fades from the headlines, McConnell could opt to move to other matters — such as voting on Trump’s pending nominees.

House Republicans, meanwhile, have struggled to get on the same page on immigration. Two immigration bills that call for major changes to immigration law — including allowing detained parents to be with their children — don’t appear to have the votes to pass the lower chamber. 

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinData shows seven Senate Democrats have majority non-white staffs Bottom line Filibuster reform gains steam with Democrats MORE (D-Calif.) has proposed a bill that has the backing of the entire Democratic caucus that would prohibit law enforcement from taking a child from a parent or legal guardian within 100 miles of the border. She said any Republican proposal to detain families together would be problematic.

Feinstein doesn’t think any sweeping immigration bill can pass Congress any time soon.  

“That means to me that we have to gather certain very precise rallying principles,” she added.

A senior Democratic aide called Republican legislation to keep detained families together “a complete waste of time” and said it’s being used as a “shiny object” to detract attention from Trump’s unwillingness to reverse his zero tolerance policy.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' A renewed emphasis on research and development funding is needed from the government Data shows seven Senate Democrats have majority non-white staffs MORE (N.Y.) on Tuesday dismissed questions about Democrats backing a GOP bill to address the border crisis, arguing it’s the president’s responsibility.

Schumer didn’t address legislation in his immediate reaction to the executive order Wednesday afternoon, instead saying it was a “relief that the president has reversed himself.”

“I also hope this represents a turning point and that the president will stop blaming others for problems he creates and start fixing them himself,” Schumer said in a statement.

Some Republican senators think that Schumer is purposely dragging his feet because Trump is taking a beating in the media over the controversy.

“Schumer doesn’t want to cooperate because this is such a wonderful issue for them,” said one Republican senator. “I’m sure he’s loving the headlines every morning.”