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GOP sees immigration as path to regain power

Republicans are building their case for taking back control of Congress around immigration, which they see as their top issue heading into the midterms.

Polls show President BidenJoe BidenAtlanta mayor won't run for reelection South Carolina governor to end pandemic unemployment benefits in June Airplane pollution set to soar with post-pandemic travel boom MORE with a high approval rating, bolstered by the pace of vaccinations and optimism about the economy. Yet they also indicate Biden’s handling of the border is a weakness, creating an opportunity in the eyes of the GOP.

Senate Minority Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneCheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women Trump muddles Republican messaging on Afghanistan The Memo: Trump's critics face wrath of GOP base MORE (R-S.D.) on Wednesday predicted that immigration will be a “potent weapon” for Republicans.

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Democrats will be vulnerable if “they refuse to come up with solutions for what’s going on” at the southern border, Thune said.

“It’s a very potent issue. It has been in the past and I think it will be,” he said. “If they want an open border policy, that’s not something that’s going to have majority support in the country.”

Democrats are not advocating an open border policy, but the party has pushed back hard at former President TrumpDonald TrumpVeteran accused in alleged border wall scheme faces new charges Arizona Republicans to brush off DOJ concern about election audit FEC drops investigation into Trump hush money payments MORE’s hard-line policies on the border, including his vow to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it — a promise that went unfulfilled.

Biden is also dealing with a crisis at the border as a wave of migrants including thousands of children seek entry to the United States and escape from violence in Central American nations. Biden has come under pressure from his own party to handle the migrants humanely; the White House has said the vast majority of migrants are returned to their home countries.

“I think it’s going to be a big issue,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Cornyn is most prolific tweeter in Congress so far in 2021 Schumer 'exploring' passing immigration unilaterally if talks unravel MORE (R-Texas), a close ally to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' McConnell alma mater criticizes him for 1619 comments McConnell amid Trump criticism: 'I'm looking forward, not backward' MORE (R-Ky.).

Cornyn and other Republicans have sought to cast the White House as unwilling to work with Republicans on solutions to the border, a message that dovetails with GOP complaints that Biden’s vows of bipartisanship during the campaign were empty.

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“I’d like to work with the administration if they’d just work with us,” Cornyn said. “You’re going to have to change some of the policies. I don’t think they really understand the nature of the problem.”

Cornyn plans to introduce bipartisan legislation with centrist Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas) to reform laws for dealing with unaccompanied migrant children. He says the measure would reduce the number of children released into the United States while they wait for immigration courts to process their cases.

“I’m sure it will be a big issue. The chaos at the border is the direct result of political decisions made by [President] Joe Biden and [Vice President] Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris's uncle discusses COVID-19 surge in India: 'The conditions are pretty bad' Updating the aging infrastructure in Historically Black Colleges and Universities Bowser on Manchin's DC statehood stance: He's 'not right' MORE and it’s producing a humanitarian crisis, a public health crisis and a national security crisis,” said Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCheney drama exposes GOP's Trump rifts Pollster Frank Luntz: 'I would bet on' Trump being 2024 GOP nominee Tim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls MORE (R-Texas), who predicts the issue will “very much so” be a liability for Democratic congressional candidates next year.

Republicans feel control of Congress is well within their grasp, as the Senate is divided 50-50 and Democrats have only a six-seat majority in the House. The president’s party historically loses seats in an off-year election.

GOP lawmakers have had a tough time finding a breakthrough message to puncture Biden’s lofty job approval ratings, a point they have acknowledged publicly.

But they see the administration’s handling of the border and illegal immigration as an opening.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted earlier this month showed that Biden has a 59 percent approval rating. But it also showed that 48 percent think illegal immigration is a “very big problem” — an increase of 20 percentage points from June.

The political gamesmanship may be a bad sign for the prospects of a deal on border security, a pathway to citizenship for illegal residents or a long-term solution to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick DurbinDick DurbinAmerica's Jewish communities are under attack — Here are 3 things Congress can do Schumer 'exploring' passing immigration unilaterally if talks unravel On The Money: Incomes, consumer spending soared in March | Harris, senators work behind scenes on jobs package | Biden cancels some border wall construction MORE (D-Ill.) is meeting quietly with a group of Republican senators to put together a starting-point proposal to at a minimum address the explosion of asylum cases. Durbin met with the group, including at least four Republicans, Wednesday afternoon.

“Despite the national party rhetoric, individual senators are still very interested in talking about aspects of immigration. I haven’t given up,” he said. 

But other Democrats are skeptical about reaching any deal with Republicans given the GOP’s political strategy.

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezJuan Williams: A breakthrough on immigration? Biden rebuffs Democrats, keeps refugee admissions at 15,000 Bottom line MORE (N.J.), a leading Democratic voice on the issue, wants Congress to use budget reconciliation to pass a robust immigration reform package through the Senate with a simple majority vote, bypassing a Republican filibuster.

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Menendez and other members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus discussed using reconciliation to enact immigration reform during a meeting with Biden at the White House on Tuesday, and Menendez said the president expressed support for the idea.

“We pressed the question of that if we cannot get a bipartisan agreement, which we are working on … in the absence of getting 10 Republicans, we’d like to know that he’s open to the possibility of immigration or elements of immigration reform through reconciliation,” Menendez said. “We want as broad as a reform as we can get.”

Durbin said Wednesday that he prefers moving immigration reform through regular order, instead of using the budget rules to bypass Republicans.

“The starting point is this bipartisan effort. I want to take it as far as I can take it,” he said.

Any bipartisan immigration reform legislation that has a chance of passing the Senate with at least 60 votes is going to be far more limited than the comprehensive bill that passed the upper chamber with 68 votes in 2013.

That bill had the support of 14 Republicans, including five who are still in Congress: Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCheney drama exposes GOP's Trump rifts House to advance appropriations bills in June, July Manchin touts rating as 'most bipartisan senator' MORE (Maine), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHouse to advance appropriations bills in June, July The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  The Memo: The GOP's war is already over — Trump won MORE (S.C.), John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenGOP sees immigration as path to regain power The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - All US adults now eligible for COVID vaccines The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - All US adults can get vaccine; decision Friday on J&J vax MORE (N.D.), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiPollster Frank Luntz: 'I would bet on' Trump being 2024 GOP nominee Trump muddles Republican messaging on Afghanistan Trump drama divides GOP, muddling message MORE (Alaska) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  Crist launches bid for Florida governor, seeking to recapture his old job MORE (Fla.).

Such legislation would be less likely to get such GOP support in 2020, given the political punishment Rubio suffered after helping to craft the 2013 immigration bill. The effort hurt Rubio in the 2016 presidential primary. Trump, who won, accused Rubio of favoring “amnesty” in November 2015.

Trump’s hard-line approach toward illegal immigration over the past five years and the popularity of his brand of politics among the Republican base now makes it very hard for Republican senators to risk working with Democrats on another broad immigration reform package.