Stumble on Immigration Bill Leaves GOP With Dwindling Options

(Bloomberg) -- Republicans are running out of options to deal with the political damage left by President Donald Trump’s border policy after one House GOP immigration bill went down to defeat on Thursday and a vote on an alternative version was delayed until next week.

The House stumbles left the GOP still grappling with how to deal with families apprehended after crossing the U.S. border illegally. In the Senate, lawmakers are forging ahead with narrowly tailored proposals designed to keep families intact while their immigration cases are pending. But any action there may be weeks away.

House Republicans held out hope that by modifying their second version of immigration legislation, it could draw enough votes from both conservatives and moderate factions to pass. The measure would require that families be kept together; provide money for Trump’s border wall; cut back legal immigration; and allow some young immigrants, known as Dreamers, to apply for visas.

“It seems like to me that’s pretty close and with a little bit of work it seems like it could get there,” said Scott Perry, a conservative Republican from Pennsylvania. “Some idea that there are only two choices here and then we have to stop is foolhardy.”

The struggle among congressional Republicans is playing out against the backdrop of international condemnation and public backlash against Trump’s policy less than five months before elections that will decide control of Congress.

Shifting Messages

It also comes amid two weeks of mixed and shifting messages from the president, who reversed his family separation policy on Wednesday -- after repeatedly insisting he was bound by law to continue it.

Trump continued that on Friday, tweeting that “Republicans should stop wasting their time on Immigration until after we elect more Senators and Congressmen/women in November.” He continued accusing Democrats of “playing games” while the problem in the House has been that the majority Republicans can’t agree among themselves to get enough votes for passage of a bill.

The strife over immigration again revealed divisions among House Republicans, who agree on little besides tax cuts. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is not running for re-election, wanted to spend this week talking about opioid legislation and the strength of the economy, but instead he’s left explaining the latest example of Republicans failing to row in the same direction.

GOP lawmakers representing swing districts, who have been some of the lead negotiators on immigration, face the greatest risk in November.

‘Human Rights Mess’

One vulnerable Republican, Colorado Representative Mike Coffman, said the president, after changing course on family separations, should now appoint a senior official to make sure children are reunited with their parents and dismiss his chief adviser on immigration.

“And the President should fire Stephen Miller now,” Coffman said on Twitter. “This is a human rights mess. It is on the President to clean it up and fire the people responsible for making it.”

Other Republican moderates facing potentially strong challenges in November, such as Florida’s Carlos Curbelo and California’s Jeff Denham, have come under attack on immigration from Democratic opponents.

Denham said that over the next few days GOP lawmakers would discuss requiring employers to use an E-verify system backed by conservatives and overhauling an agricultural guest-worker program. A date for another try at a vote hasn’t been set.

Senate Meetings

In the meantime, a bipartisan group of senators on the Judiciary Committee, including three who have authored key family-retention legislation, agreed to meet on Monday to start seeking consensus on a bill focused solely on stopping the family separations. So far, though, Republicans and Democrats have been far apart, with lawmakers introducing bills that are drawing only party-line support.

All 49 Senate Democrats are supporting a proposal by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. Her legislation would bar family separations unless it is shown that a child would be at risk of human trafficking or abuse.

On Wednesday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and more than two dozen other Senate Republicans introduced legislation that requires children and their parents to stay together during their legal proceedings.

The legislation, authored by Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, also would set standards of care for family residential centers, give priority to timely consideration of cases involving families, and authorize 225 new immigration judges.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has introduced a measure that also would mandate that families be kept together until their claims are determined. It also provides for expedited processing of those who come to the U.S. illegally with children, so their cases are decided within 14 days. It also calls for a doubling of the number of federal immigration judges from 375 to 750, and authorizes new family shelters.

While the three will participate in the bipartisan talks, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has continued to express doubts that both sides can agree on anything.

“Legislation in Congress remains unlikely and far more difficult to achieve than the simple corrective actions that the president can take immediately and administration,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. He added that the fractures in the House between moderates and members of the conservative Freedom Caucus are a chief reason to have little optimism for anything related to immigration clearing Congress.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.