GOP Leaders Eye Standalone Bill on Family Separation

With comprehensive immigration legislation expected to fail, House Republicans are considering narrower language to address the controversy that has dominated the news this week.

Immigrant children from Nicaragua, Jenque Chevarria, 6 (center) and his brother Jose (left) play inside the Catholic Charities RGV Thursday in McAllen, Texas.
AP Photo/David J. Phillip
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
June 21, 2018, 4:27 p.m.

In anticipation of their immigration bill’s imminent failure, House Republican leaders are floating the idea of a standalone bill to deal with the immigrant-family-separation crisis, according to House GOP leadership sources.

Speaker Paul Ryan and his leadership team have begun discussions with a small circle of members about releasing narrowly tailored language that resembles President Trump’s executive action directing his administration to stop separating families at the border. The legislative language could be made public as soon as Friday and leaders want to vote on it as early as next week, according to two leadership sources.

“They’re trying to find something that’s very limited in scope, that has, kind of, the executive-order language in it,” said one member involved in the discussions, who agreed to speak on background to freely discuss internal deliberations. “I don’t know if it gets done tomorrow but they want to put a small group together to get this thing resolved before it’s got some teeth to it, from the family-separation standpoint.”

Earlier in the day, leaders agreed to postpone consideration of a comprehensive, compromise immigration bill — first until Friday, and then until next week — in order to hold another meeting with their rank-and-file members to explain the legislation. The bill was originally meant to be voted on Thursday. That the discussions are already moving past that bill signals that leaders are waving a white flag on their efforts to move a bill that can pass without Democratic votes, but also suggests that they are feeling the public pressure from the crisis at the border.

More than 2,000 children have been separated from their parents since the administration started enforcing a “zero tolerance” policy. Trump had said only congressional action could force his administration to stop separating families, but Wednesday he signed an executive action directing the Homeland Security Department to hold families together.

Trump made clear, however, that the action is a temporary fix, going so far as to name it the not-so-subtle “Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Separation” executive order.

That action already has issues: It conflicts with a court ruling that immigrant children can only be held for 20 days, so the administration may be forced to return to the Obama administration’s “catch-and-release” policy that Trump and Republicans have decried, or try to take the policy to court to allow them to hold families for a longer period.

Several standalone proposals have been floated in Congress already, including a measure from Sens. Ted Cruz and Thom Tillis, and a Democratic alternative from Sen. Dianne Feinstein that every Senate Democrat has endorsed.

A House GOP leadership aide signaled that after their failure to pass two immigration bills this week, House leaders may fall back and let the Senate take the lead on the process. Cruz, Tillis, Feinstein, and Sen. Dick Durbin will reportedly meet next week to try to hash out a compromise that can pass on a bipartisan basis.

Still, the aide noted that one measure is not likely to see the light of day: a standalone family-separation bill from House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows that also seeks to reform the asylum system. Meadows has been a thorn in leadership’s side throughout the process as he and his group sought to move it as far to the right as possible. Most recently, he was seen berating Ryan on the House floor Wednesday night over late changes and drafting errors to the immigration bill.

Meadows on Thursday said if the comprehensive bill fails, the House should move on to a “deal with the child and parent separation issue … but keep it more narrowly tailored so that perhaps the wall and the DACA provision [are] not the most complicating issues to getting it done and passed in both chambers.”

It is not clear, however, that every Republican feels the same. Rep. Ken Buck, for instance said Trump’s executive order is sufficient to end the policy.

“He issued an executive order and took care of the situation right now,” he said. “The administration is addressing that issue and I think that I’m not sure whether a legal change is necessary at this point and if it is, we should be close to a joint immigration bill that we’ll take up.”

In that case, Democratic votes may be necessary. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that Democrats support a bill to end family separation and pointed to a measure sponsored by Judiciary Committee ranking member Jerry Nadler that would do so. As to a bipartisan measure, Pelosi said she and her caucus would have to see language before committing to anything.

“I can’t urge anybody to support anything that I haven’t seen,” she told reporters. “We have a responsibility to find common ground … but we haven’t seen it yet. And what we have seen is, again, outside the circle of civilized human behavior.”

Despite the effort to look past the bill, GOP leaders put on a resolute public face Thursday. Trump met with undecided members earlier Wednesday and Rep. Frank Lucas, one of the 20 or so members called to the White House, said he left no doubt in his mind that he wants the House to pass the compromise bill.

“My inclination would be, as important as President Trump said yesterday the bill was, in order to keep the process moving forward, you could see that would be the logical thing to do,” he said.

Leaders held a meeting late Thursday with their members during which Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte walked through the compromise bill section by section. The fact that they were holding an explainer so late in the process, however, did not bode well.

“The fact that they’re going through the bill section-by-section at 5:15 [p.m.] the day before the bill is supposed to be voted on is indicative of the fact that there’s work that needs to be done on the vote count,” Rep. Mark Amodei said. “It came out this week from a small core group—not the committees of jurisdiction. That’s not regular order in my opinion. That’s not an open discussion in my opinion. So you’re going to get what you get on the vote tomorrow.”

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