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House GOP considers new border bill to win over conservatives, break logjam

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Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the new House GOP whip, leaves a closed-door Republican strategy session on the immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border after last-minute maneuvering failed to lock down conservative support for a planned vote, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, July 31, 2014. The surprise developments, coming on Congress' final day of action ahead of a five-week summer recess, were an embarrassing setback for Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team as a small group of tea party lawmakers once again upset their plans. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (The Associated Press)

House Republican leaders on Friday offered a revised, $694 million bill addressing the surge of immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border to rank-and-file members, hoping the changes would sway reluctant conservatives.

Determined to head home for the five-week summer break with a political win, GOP leaders altered the bill, adding $35 million for the National Guard and clarifying a provision on quickly returning unaccompanied minors from Central America to their home countries.

The last-minute changes came after leaders were forced to abandon a scheduled vote on Thursday in the face of tea party opposition.

Even if the House passes the bill on Friday, President Barack Obama's request for more money to deal with the border crisis will go unanswered. The Senate blocked its version of a border security bill, and there are no plans to work out any compromise before Congress returns in September.

"There were folks who had legitimate concerns," said Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., as he entered a closed-door GOP meeting Friday morning. "Most of it was just tweaks, tighten up the language, I don't think it was necessarily substantive changes to the bill."

Hudson said the leadership did not anticipate strong opposition to the border bill from outside groups and Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

The gridlock on the border crisis reflected the past 18 months of a divided Congress that has little legislation to show for its days in Washington but plenty of abysmal public approval numbers.

The scuttled House vote was an embarrassment for the new GOP leadership team of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., led by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. More troubling for the House GOP was the prospect of returning home without a vote on the border crisis three months before midterm elections.

"The American people expect us to do our jobs," said moderate GOP Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. "We have both a border and humanitarian crisis to deal with, and they expect us to take action now."

The Senate blocked a $3.5 billion border package that also included money for Western wildfires and Israel, with Republicans and two Democrats — Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — opposed. Opponents argued that the bill amounted to a blank check for Obama with no policy changes.

The Senate vote was 50-44, short of the 60 votes necessary to move forward on the measure.

Congress did manage to approve a bipartisan, $16.3 billion bill to revamp the problem-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs and address the long wait times for health care for millions of veterans. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the bill 91-3 and sent it to Obama for his signature.

The Senate also relented and backed the House's version of a bill providing $10.8 billion for highway and transit projects at the height of the summer construction season, sending it to the White House. The vote was 81-13 for the measure that funds programs through May.

The failure of the House to pass the border security bill exposed bitter divisions within the GOP.

Some conservatives opposed any additional spending on border security. Others complained that the companion bill targeting the 2-year-old program that has granted work permits and relief from deportation to more than 500,000 immigrants brought here illegally as kids was not retroactive to 2012 when Obama implemented it.

Many Republicans have blamed that program for encouraging the migration from Central America, a point the White House disputes.

Sessions had spent days making the case against the House bill to conservatives, especially members of the Alabama and Mississippi congressional delegations. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said Sessions' arguments swayed lawmakers.

"To kind of put it in perspective, Jeff Sessions is probably held in higher esteem than the Alabama football coach and the Auburn football coach put together," Brooks told reporters.

Over pizza Wednesday night at his office, tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas also met with a group of House Republicans. The involvement of Sessions and Cruz clearly frustrated Republicans who wanted a vote on the border bill.

"It's kind of shocking to me that some people are willing to turn their voting cards over to the Senate or outside groups," Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., told reporters.

Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., said the House had no choice. "We don't have a bill from Ted Cruz or Jeff Sessions. If we did, we might vote on that," he said, adding, "We'll get the votes. I hope some people grow up."

Democrats relished the Republican divide, with Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., derisively referring to "Speaker Cruz."

But some Republicans countered that the problem was Obama's.

"There are still members who are convinced that they're going to be endangered back in their districts if we don't, quote, do something, unquote," said conservative Rep. John Fleming, R-La., who said he opposes any extra border spending.

"I completely disagree with them on that. I think by doing something, all we're doing is taking Obama's nightmare for ourselves. He created it," Fleming said.

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Associated Press writers David Espo, Matthew Daly, Alan Fram, Stephen Ohlemacher and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.

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