An emergency spending package addressing the immigration crisis on the border and backed by the Republican House leadership seemed to be in trouble Wednesday, largely because a group of about two dozen conservative tea party lawmakers were gathered late in the evening by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in order to discuss ways to strategize against the package.
"People were not happy with the bill that the House leadership has," Rep. Michele Bachmann, R.-Minn., said of the mood at the office, according the New York Times. "There wasn't any support in the room."
House conservatives emerged from Cruz’s office saying they would oppose the $659 million bill, which is scheduled for a vote on Thursday. The bill, which emerged from a working group headed by Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), would send emergency funds to federal agencies that help secure the border but are projected to run out of money before the end of the fiscal year, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). It would also speed the return back home of unaccompanied Central American minors who've been arriving by the tens of thousands.
House conservatives have argued that the bill doesn't go far enough to solve the underlying issues that have led to the border crisis. If the bill is voted down, it would be a black eye for the new GOP leadership team headed by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.
House leaders, as a result, scrambled to save the bill by promising conservatives a chance to vote on separate language curtailing President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
“It doesn’t sound like the Granger bill has the votes to pass,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), according to The Hill. “Most of us feel like DACA is the main problem here. That’s what started this whole show and why we have such a disaster,” Fleming said, but he added that, “There’s just a sense that [the leadership is] maneuvering in different ways to gather enough votes to pass something."
White House officials have indicated plans to unilaterally expand the DACA program, perhaps to millions more people, in the wake of the House's failure to act this year on a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate. Republicans warn that would provoke a constitutional crisis and a few conservatives have said it would be grounds for impeachment.
Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, confirmed the new vote approach Wednesday night.
The fast-moving developments would seem at least to make possible House passage of the border bill, yet they did nothing to change the overall stalemate in Congress over the border crisis. The White House issued a veto threat Wednesday against the House bill even as the Senate's very different measure cleared a procedural hurdle — likely just a temporary reprieve before its eventual defeat.
That left no apparent path for a compromise bill to reach Obama's desk before Congress' five-week recess, even as lawmakers in both parties claimed that they wanted to act.
"My constituents back home don't understand why in the world we would leave without fixing this problem," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "If we don't do anything to deal with the causes or deal with a remedy for this growing humanitarian crisis, it's going to get worse."
Republicans called the Senate's $3.5 billion bill a blank check for Obama's failed policies and demanded policy changes opposed by Democrats to send the migrants back home more quickly. The bill includes hundreds of millions of dollars to fight Western wildfires and $225 million to help Israeli self-defense, but lawmakers were making plans to deal with the money for Israel separately.
Despite their opposition, some Senate Republicans voted in favor of moving the bill forward Wednesday, saying they wanted to open debate on the measure to be able to offer amendments.
Cornyn was among 11 Republicans who voted to proceed with the bill. Two red-state Democrats in tough re-election fights — Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana — voted "no."
The bill includes $2.7 billion for more immigration judges, detention facilities, enforcement measures and other steps to deal with the tens and thousands of youths who've been arriving in South Texas without their parents or visas to enter the U.S. It does not include legal changes to permit authorities to turn unaccompanied Central American youths around at the border without deportation hearings that existing law guarantees — a GOP demand that Democrats say would send the kids back to terrible conditions.
"They should have their day in court," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
The House bill leaves out the money for wildfires and Israel but includes the legal change to send migrant youths home quickly and would also dispatch National Guard troops to the border.
Although the White House has backed legal changes to deport the kids more quickly, a statement of administration policy said the House legislation "could make the situation worse, not better," by setting arbitrary timelines that could create backlogs and hurt due process.
More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived since October, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Many are fleeing vicious gangs and are trying to reunite with family members, but they also are drawn by rumors that once here, they would be allowed to stay.
The Homeland Security Department says overwhelmed border agencies will be running out of money in coming months, and Obama asked Congress to agree to provide $3.7 billion.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.