House GOP Nears Consensus on Border Bill; Senate Agreement Looks Unlikely

US Representative Patrick McHenry, a Republican from North Carolina and subcommittee chariman, questions Elizabeth Warren, Assistant to the President and Special Adviser to the Secretary of Treasury on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as she testifies before the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's subcommittee on TARP, Financial Services, and Bailouts of Public and Private Programs during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, May 24, 2011. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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Rachel Roubein, Billy House, Michael Catalini and Tim Alberta
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Rachel Roubein Billy House Michael Catalini Tim Alberta
July 30, 2014, 4:59 p.m.

House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship threw its whip­ping op­er­a­tion in­to high gear Wed­nes­day, team­ing with power­ful com­mit­tee chair­men and pop­u­lar con­ser­vat­ives to con­vince a hand­ful of their on-the-fence col­leagues to sup­port an emer­gency bor­der-fund­ing pack­age that looms as the fi­nal obstacle between law­makers and a five-week sum­mer va­ca­tion.

Rep. Steve Scal­ise, the in­com­ing ma­jor­ity whip, has been work­ing over­time with his vote-count­ing team to identi­fy where mem­bers stand on the $659 mil­lion pack­age that ad­dresses se­cur­ity and hu­man­it­ari­an con­cerns at the south­ern bor­der. Those ef­forts ap­peared to be pay­ing off Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, when sev­er­al people fa­mil­i­ar with the whip­ping ef­fort told Na­tion­al Journ­al that Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship is con­fid­ent they will pass the bill Thursday without even need­ing Demo­crat­ic votes.

“Everything is com­ing to­geth­er,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry, the chief deputy whip.

“We’re in very good shape,” ad­ded a seni­or GOP aide who has seen the num­bers.

But a tri­umphant de­but for Scal­ise and in­com­ing House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy is far from guar­an­teed. There re­mains a small block of op­pos­i­tion—some­where between 10 and 25 Re­pub­lic­ans—that could de­fect and force GOP lead­er­ship to de­pend on Demo­crat­ic votes to win ap­prov­al for the meas­ure. These mem­bers are un­happy not with the con­tent of the bill, but with the lan­guage that was left out. This rem­nant of mal­con­tents de­mands a pro­vi­sion re­peal­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s ex­ec­ut­ive or­der on De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals, or DACA; some are also call­ing for Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Good­latte’s lan­guage that would tweak U.S. asylum laws.

GOP lead­ers de­cided Wed­nes­day even­ing to pla­cate those re­main­ing con­ser­vat­ive foes by hold­ing a second, sep­ar­ate vote Thursday — after the main bor­der bill passes — on curb­ing Obama’s dis­cre­tion­ary au­thor­ity to de­fer de­port­a­tions. The lead­er­ship hopes that op­por­tun­ity to take a pub­lic stand against the pres­id­ent will per­suade at least some op­pon­ents to back the spend­ing meas­ure.

“This is an ef­fort to get to yes,” Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a noted im­mig­ra­tion hard-liner, said in a state­ment Wed­nes­day ur­ging House lead­er­ship to in­clude the DACA and Good­latte pro­vi­sions. “And it is my hope that with this lan­guage we can be­come a 100-per­cent uni­fied con­fer­ence.”

Bey­ond the most re­bel­li­ous law­makers, there re­main an­oth­er dozen or so mem­bers who are skep­tic­al yet not out­right op­posed. And it was those po­ten­tially per­suad­able mem­bers whom Scal­ise on Wed­nes­day sought to con­vert with a one-two punch of re­spec­ted vet­er­ans and out­spoken con­ser­vat­ives.

Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon’s meet­ing of the Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee—the group Scal­ise chaired un­til two weeks ago—fea­tured an ad­dress from Good­latte him­self. He urged col­leagues to sup­port the bor­der meas­ure, even though some are re­luct­ant to do so be­cause it doesn’t in­clude his asylum lan­guage. Also ad­dress­ing the group were a hand­ful of pop­u­lar con­ser­vat­ives—Rep. Matt Sal­mon of Ari­zona among them, who told his com­rades that do­ing noth­ing was not an op­tion.

“I think a ‘no’ vote to­mor­row is in­cred­ibly dif­fi­cult to de­fend,” Sal­mon said after the meet­ing, his voice an­im­ated and mak­ing little ef­fort to mask his dis­pleas­ure with some of his col­leagues. “When you ask people the ques­tion, ‘What’s in it that you don’t like?’ they can’t come up with any­thing. Someone who votes against this to­mor­row, they’re go­ing to have to go back home and ex­plain why they voted to per­petu­ate the status quo. And I can’t see how any­body de­fends that vote.”

Told that Rep. Paul Gos­ar, his fel­low Ari­zona con­ser­vat­ive, planned to op­pose the bor­der bill be­cause it doesn’t ad­dress DACA, Sal­mon replied: “It takes a really con­vo­luted kind of lo­gic to get to that point.”

Ex­actly how many House Re­pub­lic­ans share Gos­ar’s lo­gic is hard to pin­point. In­ter­views with in­di­vidu­al mem­bers and lead­er­ship of­fi­cials sug­gest that there are at least 10 iron­clad op­pon­ents, while an­oth­er dozen are “lean­ing no” but still per­suad­able. Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship can af­ford to lose 17 of its mem­bers and still pass the bill with only GOP votes. Eight­een or more and they’ll need to rely on Demo­crat­ic sup­port—which could spark a new round of tricky arith­met­ic.

As of Wed­nes­day night the Demo­crat­ic whip-count had turned up what one aide de­scribed as “a lim­ited” num­ber of mem­bers ex­pec­ted to sup­port the GOP bill. The aide said “10 to 20” Demo­crats could be ex­pec­ted to vote for it, but noted that there had not yet been a hard whip.

Rep. Henry Cuel­lar of Texas and sev­er­al oth­er bor­der-dis­trict Demo­crats were seen as pos­sibly lean­ing to­ward sup­port­ing the bill. Mean­while, some mod­er­ates from battle­ground dis­tricts who have sided in the past with Re­pub­lic­ans on health care, spend­ing, and oth­er is­sues also are seen as pos­sib­il­it­ies.

Demo­crat­ic lead­ers are ur­ging mem­bers to stand united against the Re­pub­lic­an pro­pos­al, and don’t ex­pect many of their mem­bers to sup­port it. The primary cause for op­pos­i­tion is changes made to the 2008 anti-traf­fick­ing law, call­ing for Cent­ral Amer­ic­an chil­dren to be per­mit­ted to opt for vol­un­tary re­mov­al after cross­ing the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der. It gives U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion more free­dom on fed­er­al lands with­in 100 miles of the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der. And though it wouldn’t change the law, it in­cludes a sense of Con­gress that chil­dren shouldn’t be de­tained at mil­it­ary bases.

Rep. Jim McGov­ern, D-Mass., called the House bill “cruel” and “cheap” on Wed­nes­day, say­ing many mem­bers on his side of the aisle have deep con­cerns with the pro­posed le­gis­la­tion. “Maybe if you want to get something done, you need to work with Demo­crats and com­prom­ise a little bit,” he said.

Though many Demo­crats are call­ing for the 2008 anti-traf­fick­ing law to re­main the same, Cuel­lar au­thored a bill with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to treat all un­ac­com­pan­ied minors the same—no mat­ter the coun­try they hail from. And Cuel­lar plans to sup­port the GOP emer­gency pack­age, ac­cord­ing to his of­fice.

Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ar­iz., co­sponsored the Cuel­lar bill and said tweaks to the 2008 law in that le­gis­la­tion are fairly sim­il­ar to the GOP bor­der plan. But as of Thursday af­ter­noon, he was un­de­cided if he’d sup­port the House emer­gency sup­ple­ment­al pack­age for oth­er reas­ons.

“I’m look­ing at it,” he said, “and I don’t like a lot of what I see.”

While the bor­der crisis has cre­ated some le­gis­lat­ive un­cer­tainty in the House, the lower cham­ber looks down­right or­gan­ized com­pared with their col­leagues across the Cap­it­ol.

The Sen­ate on Wed­nes­day voted 63-33 on a pro­ced­ur­al vote to move for­ward on a $3.57 bil­lion sup­ple­ment­al bill, but Re­pub­lic­ans, who have the power to block the bill, are bear­ish on its fi­nal pas­sage. They want policy changes—something Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id and Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Bar­bara Mikul­ski have ruled out—and also ques­tion the sum of $2.7 bil­lion to deal with the bor­der crisis.

Demo­crats mean­while are pur­su­ing two paths. Of­fi­cially, and pub­licly, they say they’re united be­hind the pending sup­ple­ment­al bill. Re­id got all but two Demo­crats to vote with the rest of the caucus on Wed­nes­day, a sign that there are su­per­fi­cially few fis­sures among Demo­crats.

This path also ex­cludes the pos­sib­il­ity of adding policy lan­guage to the ap­pro­pri­ation.

But Re­id has also sug­ges­ted that if the House passes its $659 mil­lion meas­ure, he would push for a con­fer­ence com­mit­tee wherein he would seek to at­tach the Sen­ate-passed com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion over­haul to the re­port. Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans dis­missed the pos­sib­il­ity of this gam­bit, and most House Re­pub­lic­ans saw Re­id’s threat for what it was—an at­tempt to fright­en con­ser­vat­ives away from back­ing the House bill.

“Harry Re­id is scared to death. He’s pulling every trick out of the book,” Sal­mon said Wed­nes­day. “All that stuff is de­signed to scare us away from vot­ing for the bill, be­cause they’re scared that it’s go­ing to land in their lap. And then many of his mem­bers who come from red states are go­ing to be in big trouble.”

There are few signs that be­hind-the-scenes talks are un­der­way to come to an agree­ment be­fore Con­gress leaves Thursday. Re­tir­ing Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Mike Jo­hanns of Neb­raska, who joined with Sen. Susan Collins dur­ing the Oc­to­ber shut­down to try to craft a way out of that bind, said he thinks the dif­fer­ence between Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans on policy lan­guage is the biggest obstacle.

“I think the num­ber is the least of the is­sues,” he said. “I think you could over­come the num­ber is­sue if you could deal with the policy. Or you just con­tin­ue to have a prob­lem. The prob­lem doesn’t go away un­less you deal with the policy.”

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