Border Bill Brings More Headaches for Embattled GOP

Immigration dominates this week’s House agenda, while the Senate finishes a long Keystone debate.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 17: House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) holds up a copy of Dabiq, the English language magazine published by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), during a hearing on 'worldwide threats to the homeland' in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill September 17, 2014 in Washington, DC. Although security and law enforcement officials testified that ISIL has a sophisticated propaganda and recruitment program, they do not pose a direct threat to the United States homeland. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
Add to Briefcase
Fawn Johnson and Daniel Newhauser
Jan. 25, 2015, 1:15 p.m.

House Re­pub­lic­ans have weathered three tough weeks to start the 114th Con­gress, and this week won’t be any easi­er, as GOP lead­ers try to tamp down con­ser­vat­ive op­pos­i­tion to a bor­der se­cur­ity bill meant to be the core of the party’s im­mig­ra­tion re­form plan.

Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers are billing the le­gis­la­tion — which Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mike Mc­Caul called the “toughest bor­der se­cur­ity bill ever — as the gate­way to their long-prom­ised, step-by-step im­mig­ra­tion re­write. But Home­land Se­cur­ity Sec­ret­ary Jeh John­son called it “ex­treme to the point of be­ing un­work­able,” mean­ing Demo­crat­ic sup­port will be hard to come by, and that may con­front Re­pub­lic­ans with a di­lemma in which they don’t have enough votes in their own party to pass it.

The con­tro­ver­sial im­mig­ra­tion bill comes just days after GOP lead­ers pulled an an­ti­abor­tion bill from the House floor amid com­plaints from wo­men and mod­er­ates. The party has also had to en­dure a an earli­er im­mig­ra­tion vote that saw more than two dozen GOP de­fec­tions, and a di­vis­ive reelec­tion vote for Speak­er John Boehner.

Passing the Mc­Caul bill through a House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence that has long es­poused a se­cure-the-bor­der-first ap­proach to im­mig­ra­tion re­form will not be in­tu­it­ively easy, either. Sen. Jeff Ses­sions, a lead­ing voice in the far right on im­mig­ra­tion is­sues, has been ral­ly­ing op­pos­i­tion, and that may trans­late in­to prob­lems with House con­ser­vat­ives.

“No en­force­ment plan can be suc­cess­ful that does not block the pres­id­ent from con­tinu­ing to re­lease il­leg­al im­mig­rants in­to the United States and provide them with im­mig­ra­tion be­ne­fits,” Ses­sions said in a state­ment. “A ‘bor­der se­cur­ity’ plan that does not in­clude these ele­ments may end up as noth­ing more than a slush fund used by the ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­settle il­leg­al im­mig­rants in the U.S. in­teri­or.”

In re­sponse to those con­cerns, Mc­Caul and Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Good­latte is­sued a rare joint state­ment Thursday not­ing that in­teri­or is­sues, such as elec­tron­ic veri­fic­a­tion of em­ploy­ment eli­gib­il­ity, are un­der Ju­di­ciary’s jur­is­dic­tion and will be dealt with in turn.

“We join our col­leagues to se­cure our bor­ders and en­sure our im­mig­ra­tion laws are not uni­lat­er­ally ig­nored by Pres­id­ent Obama and fu­ture pres­id­ents,” they said. “We will con­tin­ue work­ing on these is­sues, and the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee will work on le­gis­la­tion to de­liv­er res­ults on in­teri­or en­force­ment.”

Such ob­jec­tions have Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats alike privately mus­ing that this is the ex­act reas­on lead­ers had sought to re­work the im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem in a com­pre­hens­ive man­ner. But the prob­lems for lead­ers do not end there.

Some con­ser­vat­ives have openly ques­tioned wheth­er the bill is merely the first step to­ward un­cer­tain and un­pal­at­able im­mig­ra­tion changes. There is a also grow­ing sen­ti­ment on the right that the bor­der bill is a ruse meant to smooth pas­sage of a DHS fund­ing bill that has yet to see Sen­ate ac­tion. The worry is that GOP lead­ers will tack it on to the fund­ing bill in­stead of meas­ures tar­get­ing Obama’s re­laxed im­mig­ra­tion-en­force­ment policies, which are not able to pass the Sen­ate — al­though lead­er­ship sources em­phat­ic­ally deny that is the plan. Also troub­lingly, sup­port for the bor­der-se­cur­ity bill has been wan­ing among the same single-is­sue groups whose ap­prov­al lead­ers touted as reas­on to sup­port the DHS fund­ing bill in the first place.

The bor­der bill would re­quire DHS to have the south­w­est bor­der un­der “op­er­a­tion­al con­trol” in five years. If the de­part­ment fails at that ob­ject­ive, the le­gis­la­tion dic­tates that polit­ic­al ap­pointees at the agency can­not travel in gov­ern­ment vehicles, be re­im­bursed for non­es­sen­tial travel, or re­ceive pay in­creases or bo­nuses.

For their part, Sen­ate GOP lead­ers are en­dors­ing the House’s bor­der le­gis­la­tion. Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, the cham­ber’s No. 2 Re­pub­lic­an, has in­tro­duced a bor­der-se­cur­ity bill identic­al to the House meas­ure with Jeff Flake of Ari­zona and Ron John­son of Wis­con­sin. Flake has sup­por­ted broad­er im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion in the past, in­clud­ing a path to cit­izen­ship for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. This year, however, he has said re­peatedly that Pres­id­ent Obama opened the door for a piece-by-piece ap­proach to im­mig­ra­tion when he cre­ated an ex­ec­ut­ive-branch pro­gram to de­fer de­port­a­tions. The bor­der-se­cur­ity bill is a good first step, he says.

In the Sen­ate, lead­ers in both parties are well aware that the Feb­ru­ary dead­line is ap­proach­ing for fund­ing DHS, but it’s any­one’s guess how they will handle it. Minor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id has asked for “clean” bill that would con­tin­ue fund­ing for the agency through Septem­ber without ad­di­tion­al pro­vi­sions. But first, Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans want to try to pass the House bill, which would stop Obama’s de­ferred-de­port­a­tion pro­grams for un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants. That ef­fort is al­most cer­tain to fail, and it will take up valu­able floor time. It is un­clear wheth­er the bor­der-se­cur­ity bill will also be part of that de­bate.

Com­pet­ing pri­or­it­ies have Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers in a quandary about what will hap­pen once the cur­rent de­bate au­thor­iz­ing the Key­stone XL pipeline is over. In the­ory, the Sen­ate’s next votes will be on put­ting ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions on Ir­an if the on­go­ing nuc­le­ar-dis­arm­a­ment talks stall. Bank­ing Com­mit­tee Chair­man Richard Shelby says he ex­pects his pan­el to vote on an Ir­an sanc­tions bill this week after a hear­ing on the is­sue slated for Tues­day, gift-wrap­ping the bill for the floor. Giv­en the first three weeks of chaot­ic de­bate on the Sen­ate’s top pri­or­ity, au­thor­iz­ing the Key­stone XL pipeline, it’s hard to ima­gine an Ir­an sanc­tions de­bate be­ing much short­er. That would leave the Sen­ate very little time to fin­ish a DHS bill.

Sen­at­ors are strug­gling with Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s open-amend­ment pro­cess, which has had a few hic­cups since Con­gress con­vened. The Sen­ate has voted on dozens of amend­ments, in­clud­ing sev­er­al ad­dress­ing a high-pri­or­ity Demo­crat­ic is­sue of cli­mate change. But Demo­crat­ic lead­ers say they have a lot more on tap. Left un­fettered, the Key­stone de­bate could go on for the rest of the year. Real­iz­ing this, Mc­Con­nell moved to cut off de­bate minutes be­fore mid­night last on Thursday, with Demo­crats howl­ing in protest, put­ting the bill on a path to fi­nal pas­sage this week.


The two cham­bers are tak­ing up dif­fer­ent en­ergy bills de­signed to speed ex­ports of li­que­fied nat­ur­al gas by re­form­ing the En­ergy De­part­ment’s per­mit­ting pro­cess for ex­port ter­min­als. The House is set to vote on a bill from Re­pub­lic­an Bill John­son of Ohio that would set a 30-day dead­line for a per­mit­ting de­cision after the ad­min­is­tra­tion com­pletes an en­vir­on­ment­al re­view of an ex­port fa­cil­ity.

Mean­while, the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing on a bi­par­tis­an bill from Wyom­ing Re­pub­lic­an John Bar­rasso and New Mex­ico Demo­crat Mar­tin Hein­rich that sets a 45-day timeline after en­vir­on­ment­al re­view, with plans to ad­vance the bill in the com­ing months.


Ahead of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s budget re­lease early next month, the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee will dis­cuss the im­pact of se­quest­ra­tion on de­fense spend­ing at a hear­ing Wed­nes­day. Gen. Ray Odi­erno, the Army’s chief of staff, Ad­mir­al Jonath­an Green­ert, chief of nav­al op­er­a­tions, Gen. Mark Walsh, the Air Force’s chief of staff, and Gen. Joseph Dun­ford, the Mar­ine Corps com­mand­ant, are ex­pec­ted to testi­fy.

Pentagon lead­ers have been vo­cal about their con­cerns that se­quest­ra­tion will lead to a less-ready mil­it­ary force, re­quir­ing them to shed pro­grams and per­son­nel. One area in which Con­gress and the De­fense De­part­ment agree they could save money is the Pentagon’s pro­cure­ment pro­cess.

The com­mit­tee also be­gins a series of hear­ings on glob­al chal­lenges to na­tion­al se­cur­ity this week, with former Sec­ret­ar­ies of State Henry Kis­sing­er, George Schultz, and Madeleine Al­bright slated to testi­fy on Thursday. Former Army, Mar­ine Corps, and Nav­al of­ficers will testi­fy on Tues­day.


After grilling Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment of­fi­cials last week on the grow­ing num­ber of be­ne­fits de­cisions be­ing ap­pealed, mem­bers of the House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee are look­ing in­to the “qual­ity and cost of VA health care” on Wed­nes­day. The VA’s health care sys­tem suffered a massive scan­dal last year after al­leg­a­tions of fake wait lists and vet­er­ans’ deaths first sur­faced at a Phoenix clin­ic.

Mem­bers of the com­mit­tee’s Eco­nom­ic Op­por­tun­ity Sub­com­mit­tee will also ex­am­ine the trans­ition as­sist­ance pro­gram, known as TAP, which sol­diers par­ti­cip­ate in when they leave the mil­it­ary. Vet­er­ans ad­voc­ates have re­peatedly raised con­cerns that ser­vice mem­bers are not ad­equately pre­pared to find a job in the ci­vil­ian work­force. Un­em­ploy­ment for post-9/11 vet­er­ans was at 6.9 per­cent in Decem­ber, com­pared with na­tion­al un­em­ploy­ment of 5.6 per­cent.


The House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee’s Com­merce, Man­u­fac­tur­ing, and Trade Sub­com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing on Tues­day morn­ing to con­sider data-breach le­gis­la­tion. In the wake of the at­tacks on Tar­get, Home De­pot, and Sony Pic­tures, Pres­id­ent Obama has urged Con­gress to re­quire com­pan­ies to dis­close breaches of per­son­al in­form­a­tion with­in 30 days. Busi­nesses and Re­pub­lic­ans have been sup­port­ive of the pro­pos­al be­cause it would pree­mpt the patch­work of state no­ti­fic­a­tion laws.

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion will meet on Thursday to con­sider re­quir­ing cel­lu­lar car­ri­ers to provide more ac­cur­ate loc­a­tion in­form­a­tion to 911 call cen­ters.


The House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee’s Health Sub­com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing on Tues­day called “Ex­amin­ing Pub­lic Health Le­gis­la­tion to Help Pa­tients and Loc­al Com­munit­ies.” The com­mit­tee will re­view a series of bills re­lated to do­mest­ic pub­lic health.

The Sen­ate Health, Edu­ca­tion, Labor, and Pen­sions com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing Wed­nes­day on em­ploy­er well­ness pro­grams. The Af­ford­able Care Act al­lows com­pan­ies to of­fer em­ploy­ees high­er fin­an­cial in­cent­ives to join well­ness pro­grams and achieve spe­cif­ic health goals, and em­ploy­ers are in­creas­ingly pen­al­iz­ing work­ers who de­cide not to par­ti­cip­ate.

White House

Pres­id­ent Obama starts the week with a big parade in In­dia be­fore he re­turns home to huddle with con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats to plan party strategy. The parade marks Re­pub­lic Day and is the sym­bol­ic high point of the pres­id­ent’s time there. After see­ing the Taj Ma­hal, he re­turns to Wash­ing­ton early Wed­nes­day. Later that day, he will par­ti­cip­ate in the ce­re­mo­ni­al send-off for De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel. On Thursday, he will go to Phil­adelphia to meet with House Demo­crats gathered there.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5309) }}

Contributions by Rachel Roubein, Clare Foran, Jason Plautz, Sophie Novack, Jordain Carney, Brendan Sasso and George E. Condon Jr.

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.