HERSHEY, Pa. (AP) – Republican lawmakers determined to counter President Barack Obama on immigration want to advance solutions of their own, starting with a border security bill and perhaps moving on to tackle other aspects of the broken system.
It's a goal House Republicans have tried and failed to achieve for the past two years, even as the Senate passed a comprehensive, bipartisan bill that ultimately died because of inaction in the House.
But as House and Senate Republicans met for a joint retreat in this capital of chocolate and sweets, lawmakers said that with the Senate now under GOP control, they have a new opportunity to take aim at immigration with their own, step-by-step approach. Many viewed the Senate's bill as amnesty because it included a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally, and they want to take a much different tack.
"It is happening now because members want it to happen, the American people want it to happen," Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., a conservative on the issue, said Friday as the retreat wrapped up and lawmakers headed out of the homey Hershey Lodge to board buses and vans back to Washington.
"We should do a border bill first, secure our borders," Barletta said. "It's a big job, and it's going to be a tough bill."
Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, outlined proposed border legislation to lawmakers at the retreat, including penalties for select administration officials who fail to comply with border security provisions within the bill.
The discussions came as lawmakers struggled for a path forward on a related issue: How to stop Obama's executive actions on immigration that have offered work permits and protection from deportations to millions.
Republicans oppose Obama's moves as an unconstitutional overreach, and the House offered one response earlier this week. House Republicans attached language to a must-pass, $39.7 billion spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security that would undo Obama's actions, in the process exposing hundreds of thousands of younger immigrants to deportation. Obama has threatened to veto the bill.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pledged Thursday that the Senate would vote on the House bill, but he was not predicting it would pass.
"We're going to try to pass it. That'll be our first choice," McConnell told reporters. "If we're unable to do that, we'll let you know what comes next."
At a town hall-style meeting in Goffstown, New Hampshire, on Friday, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., was more blunt when questioned by a reporter: "I don't think it could get 60 votes in the Senate," she said of the House bill.
Although the Senate is now under GOP control, Republicans are still six votes shy of the 60-vote margin needed to advance most legislation, and a number of Senate Republicans have concerns with the House approach. In the wake of the Paris terror attacks, lawmakers don't want Homeland Security legislation jeopardized with veto-bait amendments.
Funding for the Homeland Security Department expires at the end of February, so Republicans have until then to resolve the issue. Republican leaders renewed pledges Thursday not to let funding for the Homeland Security Department expire or risk a government shutdown.
Lawmakers and aides said that whether they're able to move forward on broader immigration legislation — and how — will depend on how the fight over Obama's executive actions is resolved.