Lawmakers are stumbling in their efforts to address the border crisis before bolting for the holiday recess, dimming long-shot hopes that Congress can meet President Donald Trump’s two-week deadline to stave off his threatened mass deportations.
House Democratic leaders spent Monday night fighting off a last-minute liberal rebellion to tank their $4.5 billion emergency spending package. Across the Capitol, Senate leaders were moving forward on a funding bill but largely dismissing Trump’s aggressive timeline on changing asylum laws.
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Senior lawmakers say the idea that Congress could come together to overhaul thorny immigration laws in two weeks — as Trump demanded over the weekend — is a pipe dream, especially with members out of town next week for July 4th.
“It’s unrealistic and right now we’re focused on the border supplemental. That should be our priority,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.). “The president can tweet or say whatever he wants.”
“It’s going to take weeks,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the lead Democratic negotiator on asylum laws. “He did the same thing on DACA, we came up with a bill. He didn’t like it. You know, I’ve seen this movie. I know how it ends.”
Durbin is working with Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on an asylum package, but they hadn’t spoken about it since Wednesday of last week, as of Monday night.
The congressional stalemate puts Trump in a precarious position if Congress fails, leaving him again with the choice of following through with raids to deport “millions” of undocumented immigrants or backing down.
Trump has issued hard-line threats before only to pull back after winning some concessions. He recently avoided imposing broad tariffs on Mexico by claiming victory after Mexico announced it would send thousands of troops to the border to try to stem the surge of Central American migrants.
Some Republicans applauded Trump’s latest move, saying the lingering threat of widespread immigration raids and deportations could finally convince Democrats to negotiate on long-stalled immigration talks.
“If it brings Democrats to the table I think that’s a pretty shrewd move,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “They seem to be totally impervious to any sort of persuasion or pressure, but I think it’s worth a try. At least he will have demonstrated his good faith.”
Democrats were quick to dismiss Trump’s red line, saying it’s just the latest in a string of immigration-related provocations that the president has floated only to retreat from at the last moment.
“Look at the things he’s gone through: Tariffs, close the border, issue after issue. He makes threats and then backs off because none of them make any sense, none of them have been thought through,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Monday.
And if he were serious about wanting to change asylum laws, Trump would have brought it up before a weekend tweet, Democrats say.
Trump did not raise the issue during a 12-minute call with Speaker Nancy Pelosi Friday night in which she asked him to call off the ICE raids, according to a source familiar with the call. Furthermore, Trump made his two-week deadline just days before a scheduled break, with no one predicting the recess will be cancelled to deal with an immigration debate.
Meanwhile Democratic leaders were struggling to contain an 11th hour revolt by some progressives and Hispanic members to derail the supplemental spending measure.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-Cortez (D-N.Y.) voiced her opposition to the bill on a weekend call with other members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
She and other progressive freshmen, including Democratic Reps. Ayanna Presley, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, were whipping in opposition to the legislation on Monday, according to multiple sources.
But supporters of the bill pushed back hard behind the scenes, arguing that if Democrats sink their own legislation, they’ll end up with the Senate plan which doesn’t contain language to block Trump from using the funds for his border wall or to increase deportations.
Pelosi was set to huddle with members of the CHC and Congressional Progressive Caucus and top appropriators on Monday night to work out differences before the scheduled floor vote on Tuesday.
Among the key differences between each version of the legislation is a provision in the House bill that requires the Trump administration to restore hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
The House bill also leaves out $65 million included in the Senate legislation to cover Immigration and Customs Enforcement pay shortfalls and overtime costs, according to a House Democratic summary.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who leads the DHS spending panel in the Senate, said she was working closely with House Democratic leaders to produce something that can become law.
“We’re working well together and I’m hoping we can iron out those differences,” she said. The House has “a different thought, particularly in the ICE area, and I think we’re going to have to dig down on those.”
Capito said she hoped a compromise between Senate Republicans and House Democrats could be struck this week. But reconciling two competing bills by Thursday or Friday may prove too tough a task.
In addition, the House legislation stipulates that care for unaccompanied minors by the Health and Human Services department must include additional safeguards for children, including guaranteed access to legal representation, as well as food, clothing and appropriate activities.
Shocking reports of unsanitary conditions for detained children are trickling out, with HHS Secretary Alex Azar conceding they are “not good conditions for kids to be in.”
And though Trump has made the border spending bill a priority, he’s been more focused publicly on the more difficult task of overhauling asylum law.
Graham, who was in touch with Trump over the weekend, shelved his partisan asylum bill last week as it became clear it had no path to becoming law.
But he and Durbin have big challenges ahead of them as they try to add new immigration judges and encourage asylum seekers to make their requests in Mexico or their home country to avoid putting added stresses on the border.
As point man for congressional Democrats, Durbin is resisting reforms to the definition of asylum and weakening protections for unaccompanied minors. Any bipartisan deal is likely to tick off restrictionist Republicans and outside groups pushing for tougher border policies.
It also could be exceedingly difficult for liberals like Durbin to find common ground with a president who has already thwarted bipartisan immigration action in the Senate.
“I think people finally convinced him what a disaster this would be,” Durbin said of Trump’s proposed mass deportations. “How about kids coming home to an empty house? Cruelty. Open cruelty involving families across this country instead of prioritizing those who may be a danger to us.”
Ted Hesson and Gabby Orr contributed to this report.