Trump Rejects House GOP Bill That Would End Border Separations

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said he won’t sign a compromise immigration bill that, among other provisions, would end his administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from parents when they illegally cross the U.S. border, blowing up a deal House Republicans reached after weeks of negotiations.

Trump’s rejection is a setback to House Speaker Paul Ryan who had brokered an agreement to hold a vote on two versions of immigration legislation that sought to address White House demands as well as those of GOP moderates facing potentially tough races in the November congressional elections. Many House Republicans said Friday that Trump’s comments undercut any effort to get a bill passed.

"I’m looking at both of them. I certainly won’t sign the more moderate one," Trump said Friday in an interview on Fox News.

The president’s remarks also come as Republicans in Congress are showing growing unease with the rising number of family separations, which has begun generating public backlash. Ryan and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn both said Thursday that legislative action is needed to keep families together.

“I hate the children being taken away," Trump said during an impromptu media appearance on the White House lawn, blaming without evidence the law and Democrats for the policy his Justice Department initiated.

The legislation backed by Republican moderates includes a provision that would explicitly prohibit the Homeland Security Department from releasing children who cross with their parents to anyone other than a parent or legal guardian.

Speaking for Trump

Trump’s surprise comments provide the latest evidence that no one in the White House but Trump speaks for Trump. They contradict assurances that House Republicans said they were given earlier this week by Stephen Miller, the main architect of the administration’s approach on immigration. Lawmakers said Miller told them in a closed door meeting that Trump supported them bringing the two versions of immigration legislation to a vote.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy declined to comment on Trump’s remarks Friday morning, and aides to McCarthy and Ryan didn’t respond to requests for comment.

‘Very Disappointed’

"I’m very disappointed," said Representative Mike Coffman, a moderate Republican from a competitive Colorado district. "The president needs to read the bill," Coffman said, adding that the president was just "responding to the word ‘moderate’."

“I thought this was the bill the White House was analyzing in a positive fashion,” said another GOP moderate, Leonard Lance of New Jersey.

Earlier this week Ryan touted the compromise bill as something that could actually become law because it includes provisions allowing legal status for young undocumented immigrants, money for a wall at the U.S. border with Mexico, and cuts to legal immigration Trump said must be included in a bill he would sign.

“We’ve been working hand-in-glove with the administration on this, to make sure that we’re bringing a bill that represents the president’s four pillars so that we can come together, have the votes that everybody’s looking for,” Ryan said two days ago.

Lobbying Trump

But anti-immigration hardliner Steve King of Iowa said he spoke to White House officials last night and urged them to get Trump to oppose the compromise bill. 

“The president knows that amnesty for DACA recipients is not part of his mandate,” said King, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from being deported.

Trump tweeted on Friday that "Any Immigration Bill MUST HAVE full funding for the Wall, end Catch & Release, Visa Lottery and Chain, and go to Merit Based Immigration" -- all elements that are addressed in the compromise GOP plan.

Even if Trump reverses himself, as he’s done on other issues, the bill is likely doomed, said Republican Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho.

“I don’t think either bill makes it out of the House,” he said. “It’s a tough damn issue. “

Simpson said that Trump weighing in on legislation off the cuff has become a major headache for congressional Republicans, citing his shifting positions on the massive budget plan approved earlier this year. 

This setback could encourage more members -- frustrated with the president’s unpredictability -- to sign a petition that would force a vote on four immigration proposals, including those favored by Democrats. The petition, signed by all Democrats and a few dozen Republicans, is just two signatures short of the number needed to require the votes.

The compromise bill that members labored over for the past month could be one of the bills that gets a floor vote if the petition gets the final few signatures.

“At this point I would not put a final ‘this bill will not ever see floor action’ banner across the top,” said Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the conservative Republican House Freedom Caucus. Meadows said he is broadly supportive of the bill’s outline.

Trump blamed Democrats on Friday for the policy of taking children from their parents, saying, "The Democrats have to change their law, that’s their law."

But White House officials haven’t been able to cite any part of U.S. law that requires the policy, which was initiated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The president, his aides and congressional Republicans have given differing rationales for it: Sessions and Chief of Staff John Kelly said children were being taken away as a deterrent while Republicans in Congress recently said it’s based on a 1997 court settlement regarding the treatment of immigrant children in federal custody.

Temporary Shelters

Children who arrive with their parents are being sent to temporary government shelters while their parents go through a legal process. Republicans in the Senate said Thursday they may seek separate legislation to end the practice. The House moderate plan would state that a minor who doesn’t arrive at the border unaccompanied must be released to a parent or legal guardian.

Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois told reporters the administration is "skirting the rules" to separate children from their parents.

"And where are the Republicans?" Gutierrez said. "I don’t see them. I see them scared of the president’s itchy trigger finger, and afraid to stand up to a bully because they are scared of losing their jobs."

When House Republicans released the compromise immigration measure Thursday, even supporters said it didn’t yet have enough support to pass the House. The bill includes other provisions almost certain to be rejected by Democrats, including money for a border wall and new limits on family-based immigration.

Cornyn says he wants to advance legislation that would require judges to rule on migrant children’s cases within 72 hours. Children who win their case could stay in the U.S. in a sponsor’s custody. He said such a measure could move on its own for a full Senate vote, or perhaps could be tucked inside other legislation.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.