Congress may be headed toward a stalemate on the border.
The crux of a House GOP working group's plan, laid out Wednesday, to address the influx of children streaming to the U.S.-Mexico border contains fundamental differences from the Senate's evolving blueprint.
A proposal that lawmakers have decried as one of the most contentious—and possibly irreconcilable—is a change to the 2008 anti-trafficking law prohibiting Central American children from voluntary removal. This is a key component of a plan from a House Republican working group, led by Rep. Kay Granger. House GOP Conference members were briefed Wednesday morning on the group's recommendations to solve what President Obama has called a humanitarian crisis at the border.
The recommendations—which haven't been set in stone—included a number of bullet points focused on securing the border.
- Deploy the National Guard to the border to assist Border Patrol agents. Granger did not say exactly what the number of troops might be.
- Require the Homeland Security Department to craft and implement a plan to "gain operational control" of the southwest border.
- Address border-security issues in Central America and Mexico.
- Create repatriation centers to help families and unaccompanied minors once they return to their home country.
- Implement aggressive messaging campaigns—which are already underway in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. These are aimed at exposing the dangers of the journey to the U.S. and dispelling the myth that children will be permitted to enter the country.
- Process family units within five to seven days. Children should have a fast-tracked immigration-court hearing within seven days after a child welfare official's screening. More judge teams and temporary judges would be added.
- Establish an independent commission to craft metrics to show if initiatives to secure the border are working.
- Create tough penalties for smugglers and disassemble transnational criminal organizations.
The GOP outline may not have the full backing of House Republicans. The scope of conservative opposition to the Granger plan isn't yet fully known, but it is rooted in a narrative that has dictated GOP hostility to everything immigration-related that has been discussed during this Congress.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Republicans' opposition is their visceral distrust of Obama to execute and enforce any of the laws they have already passed or may pass in the future. Conservatives have consistently accused Obama of selectively enforcing immigration law, and many have essentially ruled out any further legislating on the issue until a new president resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
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Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said House Speaker John Boehner expressed some doubt as to whether the Granger group's recommendations could pass the House. The speaker opened the Wednesday meeting asking for input from conference members on the proposed plan.
"This discussion among our members is going to continue, but we have not made any decisions," Boehner said at a 10 a.m. press conference afterward.
There will be more meetings to get the policy hammered out, Granger said after the GOP conference ended Wednesday morning. It hasn't been decided if the funding and the policy recommendations will be packaged in one bill.
Financially speaking, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers said $1.5 billion was the best estimate for emergency supplemental funding in the House, although the GOP conference hasn't come to a consensus on this number.
But outside the GOP Conference, there's a major financial discrepancy between the administration, the Senate, and the House on the amount of funding that should be appropriated. The White House called for $3.7 billion. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, of Maryland, unveiled legislation Wednesday calling for more than $2 billion, including $1.2 billion—the largest allocation in the request—for Health and Human Services so the agency can in part provide shelter for the children, according to a summary of the legislation released by the committee.
And even the House's possible $1.5 billion figure is just way too high, Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., told a gaggle of reporters Wednesday.
"To spend billions of dollars on foreign children—money that we don't have, that we have to borrow to get, that we can't afford, to pay back—is financial insanity when you can solve the problem with as little as $20 to $30 million," he said.
All these funding and policy differences would need to be completed within the next week or so, before Congress takes a summer break.
"It has to get done by the August recess," Granger said. "You don't walk away from something like this and say we'll come back in a month, when kids are coming across that border."
Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona agreed. Salmon, both a staunch conservative and a member of Granger's working group, said it would be "incredibly hard" to face voters back home without taking any action before the recess.
Asked about opposition from his fellow House conservatives to what he called "a really good plan," Salmon replied, "The immediate pushback from some of the conservatives is to anything, even if it's the best darn bill in the world. And I think that most of them recognize that this is actually a pretty good proposal."
One such conservative, Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, isn't sold. Asked whether he'll vote for the proposal, Gohmert said, "If we had a president who enforced the law, yes."
But once July sunsets, Congress will take its recess—with or without emergency funds.
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has sent multiple desperate warnings to lawmakers that, come mid-August, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will run out of money.
Without emergency supplemental funding, ICE will lack the resources to expand detention and removal capabilities for adults with children. HHS will lack the resources to create stable, more cost-effective arrangements for kids crossing the border. And children will wait longer to see an immigration judge, according to an administration official.
And the White House hasn't publicly stated what exactly a Plan B entails.
"Right now, we're focused on Plan A," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a briefing last week. "Again, Plan A is something that Republicans themselves have advocated for, right—pressing this administration to mobilize resources to meet this urgent humanitarian need and enforce the law."
The administration can take some solo steps, yet additional resources are needed—and Congress should appropriate them, Earnest said.
"I'm assuming we can pass a bill in the House," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers told reporters Tuesday evening. "I'm assuming the Senate can pass a bill. And I'm assuming we can reconcile our differences."
But what will happen if the differences are too stark and ICE runs out of funds?
"That's a bunch of hypotheticals," Rogers said.
Yet, some lawmakers doubt these fundamental differences can be hashed out in the next week.
Sen. John McCain, who led a charge for immigration reform last year, said Tuesday he's "pessimistic" that a deal on the border will be reached before the recess, largely because immigration advocates, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus oppose making changes to the 2008 trafficking law.
In a letter Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker John Boehner echoed McCain's concerns, asking President Obama to clarify the administration's position on making changes to the 2008 law, as conflicting opinions among Democrats have emerged within the past several weeks.
"We were surprised that you did not include these changes in your formal supplemental request," Boehner wrote. "Worse, in recent days, senior congressional leaders in your own political party have backpedalled and voiced unswerving opposition to any changes at all."
And this is a much-needed reform the House Republican working group is advocating, Boehner wrote.
Even then, it's unclear if the GOP recommendations can get through the House.
"We just don't know the numbers in our caucus and on the other side of the aisle," Rogers told reporters Tuesday evening. "There's been no whip check at this point."
This story has been updated.
Tim Alberta, Michael Catalini and Brian Resnick contributed to this article.
This article appears in the July 24, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.