(Bloomberg) -- House Republicans fell far short on their second attempt to pass a GOP-only immigration bill, notching one more failure on President Donald Trump’s signature issue just months before they try to defend their majority in midterm elections.
The attempt to come up with legislation that would appeal to moderate and conservative Republicans failed, 121 to 301. The defeat of the bill, which even its backers anticipated, capped more than a month of intense GOP negotiations that played out amid public backlash the Trump administration for separating immigrant families at the border.
The failure vividly illustrates House Speaker Paul Ryan’s inability to get a fractious GOP House majority together on a broad immigration proposal, even one that would have accomplished many of President Donald Trump’s policy priorities.
With less than five months before all House members will be up for re-election, conservative Republicans will have to explain to voters why they still haven’t funded Trump’s border wall, and GOP moderates will go home empty handed on their promise to give immigrants brought to the U.S. as children a path to citizenship.
Trump on Wednesday urged Republicans in the House to pass the immigration bill, in an all-caps tweet, even after he wrote last week that members of his party were wasting their time dealing with the issue before the election.
“HOUSE REPUBLICANS SHOULD PASS THE STRONG BUT FAIR IMMIGRATION BILL,” Trump wrote in his Twitter message.
The administration also released a formal policy statement saying the White House backed the legislation.
The moderate Republicans who helped draft the bill defended the effort, saying that if it weren’t for a petition they started to force floor votes on immigration proposals, Ryan never would have returned to the debate. Jeff Denham, a California Republican, said Wednesday’s bill included all the measures Trump requested.
“It’s been very frustrating,” Denham said, recognizing that Republicans can’t pass immigration legislation on their own.
With the bill’s rejection, House members will now turn their attention to a much more narrow proposal to write a law that would keep undocumented parents and children together when they’re apprehended crossing the U.S. border. House leaders plan to put this measure on the floor the week of July 10, according to a Republican aide.
Since Trump initiated his “zero tolerance” policy of detaining everyone who enters the U.S. illegally, more than 2,000 immigrant children have been separated from their parents. After an outcry from the public and lawmakers, Trump last week signed an executive order to end the separations but said Congress needs to change the law.
Some families have been reunited as the federal government works to comply with a court order to reunite immigrant children who were separated from their families at border crossings and to stop detaining parents without their children.
The broader bill that failed Wednesday includes two provisions to address this issue: changes to the 1997 Flores court settlement that limits how long minors can be detained, and a requirement for families to be held together in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security. It also would have redirected $7 billion for border technology to build more family detention centers.
Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington state representative who is chairwoman of the Republican conference, plans to introduce a bill designed to pass quickly and prevent immigrant families from being separated. GOP leaders have been tight-lipped about her proposal to avoid draining support from the broader Republican measure that failed Wednesday.
"I don’t like the fact that was raised as a possibility in some ways that would undermine our effort," Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican who represents a diverse district, said in reference to a more narrow bill. Still, Curbelo said, “a lot of good has come” from the past few weeks of immigration discussions.
The foundation of McMorris Rodger’s bill could be a proposal introduced by Senator Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, that would put aside a 1997 settlement in an immigration case that had the practical effect of requiring children to be released from detention after 20 days.
That legislation would also give priority to timely consideration of cases involving families, and authorize 225 new immigration judges. Trump, however, said that he opposes adding immigration judges.
Democrats in both chambers oppose voiding the 21-year-old settlement because it also contained standards for facilities and treatment of children who are detained. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat, said the next proposal must be focused solely on keeping families together to get any support from the minority party.
“If it includes repealing the Flores restrictions, I think the answer to that is maybe no,” Hoyer said. “If it just says, ‘Look, we’re not going to separate children at the border,’ then I think we’d be for it.”
Ryan characterized the Democrats’ position as “catch and release” for immigrants apprehended at the border and said Congress shouldn’t have to choose between policies that “separate families or secure the border.”
“We should be able to keep families together and secure the border and enforce our laws,” Ryan told reporters.”
Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who is chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, introduced his own version of a bill that would not only allow families to be detained together, but would also change the standard for asylum applications.
Congress doesn’t have much time to act on legislation to end family separations. Thursday is the last day the House is in session until July 10, and then there are only three weeks before a month-long August recess when members will be back in their districts campaigning for re-election.
It’s unclear how long Trump’s executive order, which relies on judicial action to change legal precedents, will guide administration policy on how to detain immigrants who cross the border illegally with their children.
Yet the title of the president’s action makes its true intent clear: “Executive Order Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Separation.”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.