Trump's border aid request stalls amid fresh obstacles

Trump's border aid request stalls amid fresh obstacles
© Getty Images

President TrumpDonald John TrumpCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House MORE's request for emergency money for the U.S.-Mexico border is stuck in limbo on Capitol Hill.

The administration wants roughly $4.5 billion in supplemental funding, including $3.3 billion for humanitarian aid. Top GOP senators are now warning that money for vital services along the border will run out in a matter of weeks unless Congress takes action.

Extra border assistance was on the brink of being included in the recent disaster aid package, but it got yanked after a stalemate on immigration threatened passage of the $19.1 billion recovery bill. That setback left the funding adrift, as Washington turned its focus to bigger fights over issues like tariffs and budget caps.

ADVERTISEMENT

Senate Republicans began sending up warning flares this week that Congress needs to pass new funding by the end of the month or a Health and Human Services (HHS) program charged with taking care of unaccompanied migrant children will run out of money as early as July.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump, Biden spar over coronavirus response Senator Tom Coburn's government oversight legacy Schumer praises choice of Defense inspector general to oversee corporate lending fund MORE (R-Ky.) has hammered home the issue several times over the past few days in floor speeches, press conferences and interviews.

“[Democrats] need to take their heads out of the sand and work with us on our side of the border to address the humanitarian crisis that their resistance has contributed to,” McConnell said during a weekly leadership press conference.

The White House has requested almost $3 billion to shore up the Office of Refugee Resettlement. HHS Secretary Alex Azar described the situation as a “humanitarian crisis” during a Fox News interview on Thursday while pleading with Congress to approve the additional funding.

“We are running out of money. We are functionally out of space,” he said. “Congress has got to pass a supplemental appropriation that President Trump has asked far.” 

“By early July we may be out of funding,” Azar added.

ADVERTISEMENT

The funding fight comes amid rising tensions over the border. Trump is threatening to slap new tariffs on Mexico starting Monday unless the country takes significant steps to crack down on migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border — a strategy that couples two divisive issues and has subsequently sparked bipartisan backlash on Capitol Hill.

HHS also said this week that it had told shelters housing migrants to start winding down services, including legal aid and recreational activity, that were not directly related to a child’s safety. The agency said it was ending those services because it was quickly running out of funding and the Antideficiency Act requires HHS to prioritize safety when faced with a funding shortfall.

Azar warned on Thursday that the situation could worsen unless Congress approves Trump’s supplemental request, arguing that HHS staff won’t be able to be paid and grantees will be “operating on IOUs.”

HHS operates a network of approximately 168 facilities and programs in 23 states to house unaccompanied children. On average this year, the agency has taken about 40,000 children into custody, including 12,587 in April.

Some lawmakers, on both sides of the aisle, have suggested Congress provide humanitarian aid to help unaccompanied children, but any path to a deal is laced with partisan landmines and even intraparty battles.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyCoronavirus bill includes more than billion in SNAP funding White House billion emergency request balloons to 2 billion in Senate coronavirus stimulus talks Five sticking points to a T coronavirus deal MORE (R-Ala.) described McConnell as “eager to move” a supplemental funding bill.

“If it’s more than just [humanitarian assistance] it will probably go nowhere,” Shelby said. “But you have to ask, who would vote against that?”

Shelby acknowledged he hadn’t discussed the issue “at length” with Democrats.

When reporters pointed out that immigration-related legislation tends to fall apart on Capitol Hill, he noted that was a “good observation. We’ll just have to see.”

“Y’all are keen watchers of everything,” he quipped.

Lawmakers appeared close to including the humanitarian request in the disaster aid bill, which Trump signed Thursday, but a disagreement over immigration issues, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, sprang up as a last-minute roadblock.

Asked about the hang-ups on the funding, Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntHillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Lawmakers already planning more coronavirus stimulus after T package Senate Democrats vow to keep pushing for more funds for mail-in voting MORE (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership and the Senate Appropriations Committee, urged lawmakers to “get back to the fundamental issues.”

Blunt said he spoke about the need to pass legislation during a weekly Senate GOP lunch, but he stopped short of predicting that lawmakers could break the logjam during the current work period, which ends June 28.

“I think we’re going to come to significant moments in this work period where there is no money to reimburse, no money to meet our obligations to generally the not for profit groups that have become the … custodians for unaccompanied children but also they're the ones who provide the infrastructure to find people who may be in the country that those children could be safely placed with,” Blunt said.

A source familiar with the negotiations said one issue that has bubbled up is when HHS can share information with the Department of Homeland Security about the potential sponsors for unaccompanied children.

Moving Trump’s request for humanitarian aid could cause headaches for Democratic leadership, with progressives wary of supporting anything that could, directly or indirectly, help enforce Trump’s immigration and border policies.

Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesPelosi says House will review Senate coronavirus stimulus package Pelosi says House will draft its own coronavirus funding bill Senate closes in on trillion-dollar coronavirus stimulus bill MORE (D-N.Y.) said Democrats want to “get to yes,” but appeared skeptical that Trump wanted to get legislation passed instead of just stirring up his political base ahead of the 2020 election.

“It's hard to tell where the administration is at in terms of wanting to really deal with the immigration problem through a substantive lens, or whether it's all about politics and a campaign applause line and political promises that Donald Trump made on the campaign trail,” he told reporters after a closed-door caucus meeting.

A House Democratic aide said the caucus wants to pass humanitarian assistance and was having discussions about when and how to move a bill.

“We understand the needs, but we don’t want to give this administration a blank check,” the aide said. “Most of our conversations are focused on provisions in the package that will protect the rights and dignity of migrants. If Republicans will accept those provisions, we can quickly get this done.”

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyMaxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Coronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner Lawmakers, labor leaders ramp up calls to use Defense Production Act MORE (D-Conn.) challenged McConnell to bring a bill to the floor and let senators offer amendments until they come up with something that could get the 60 votes needed to advance the measure.

“We’re not going to vote for Trump’s agenda — locking kids and families in cages and building a border wall — but we absolutely think you’ve got to put more resources along the border,” Murphy said. “Bring a bill up for debate. I don’t understand this notion that you have to pre-bake a piece of legislation before it even appears on the Senate floor.”