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 TrumpAverage tax refunds down double-digits, IRS data shows White House warns Maduro as Venezuela orders partial closure of border with Colombia Trump administration directs 1,000 more troops to Mexican border MORE’s desk.

Republicans unveiled a bill that merged a variety of ideas put forth by Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynSenate plots to avoid fall shutdown brawl Inviting Kim Jong Un to Washington Trump endorses Cornyn for reelection as O'Rourke mulls challenge MORE (Texas) and Sens. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisThe Hill's Morning Report — Emergency declaration to test GOP loyalty to Trump Don’t look for House GOP to defy Trump on border wall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump escalates fight with NY Times MORE (R-N.C.), Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzInviting Kim Jong Un to Washington Trump endorses Cornyn for reelection as O'Rourke mulls challenge O’Rourke not ruling out being vice presidential candidate MORE (R-Texas) and Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonInviting Kim Jong Un to Washington Senate approves border bill that prevents shutdown 'Morning Joe' host quizzes Howard Schultz on price of a box of Cheerios 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 CollinsGraham: 'Handful' of GOP senators will vote to block Trump's emergency declaration Dems set up Tuesday vote to block Trump's emergency declaration The Hill's Morning Report — Emergency declaration to test GOP loyalty to Trump MORE’s (R-Maine) office to find shared principles that could serve as the basis for a compromise bill.

ADVERTISEMENT

“The idea is to make sure we are bringing people from both sides of the aisle together,” said Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerThe Hill's Morning Report — Emergency declaration to test GOP loyalty to Trump Don’t look for House GOP to defy Trump on border wall Inviting Kim Jong Un to Washington 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 ThunePolls: Hiking estate tax less popular than taxing mega wealth, income Will Trump sign the border deal? Here's what we know Key GOP senator pitches Trump: Funding deal a 'down payment' on wall 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 PortmanTexas senator introduces bill to produce coin honoring Bushes GOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats Steel lobby's PR blitz can't paper over damaging effects of tariffs 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 RubioOn The Money: Dems set Tuesday vote on Trump's emergency declaration | Most Republicans expected to back Trump | Senate plots to avoid fall shutdown drama | Powell heading before Congress Brown, Rubio trade barbs over ‘dignity of work’ as Brown mulls presidential bid The Hill's Morning Report — Emergency declaration to test GOP loyalty to 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 SessionsTrump says he hasn't spoken to Barr about Mueller report Ex-Trump aide: Can’t imagine Mueller not giving House a ‘roadmap’ to impeachment Rosenstein: My time at DOJ is 'coming to an end' 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) MenendezActing Defense chief calls Graham an 'ally' after tense exchange William Barr is right man for the times This week: Trump delivers State of the Union amid wall fight MORE (N.J.), a leading Democratic voice on immigration.  

“It does not solve the problem,” Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Anticipation builds for Mueller report Kamala Harris: Trump administration ‘targeting’ California for political purposes Harry Reid says he won’t make 2020 endorsement until after Nevada caucus 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 McConnellKids confront Feinstein over Green New Deal Trump selects Kelly Craft for United Nations ambassador Union leader says Green New Deal would make infrastructure bill ‘absolutely impossible’ 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 FeinsteinKids confront Feinstein over Green New Deal Feinstein says she thinks Biden will run after meeting with him Trump judicial nominee Neomi Rao seeks to clarify past remarks on date rape 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDon’t look for House GOP to defy Trump on border wall GOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win 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.”