The outrage is growing. It’s visual. It’s visceral. It’s bipartisan.
And yet at this point on what will be the most significant policy week on the immigration front in months, nobody on either side of Pennsylvania Avenue appears to know what the solution will be to Trump administration’s policy of referring all individuals illegally crossing the border for criminal prosecution – and as such, leading to family separations.
Legislative options are, so far, partisan and miles from passage. President Donald Trump, to this point, appears unwilling to reverse course on his own policy shift.
Bottom line: The vast majority of Republicans on Capitol Hill – House and Senate – want the President to, for all intents and purposes, turn off the policy shift on criminal prosecutions. It’s within his power, just as it was to implement it in the first place. But aides in both chambers have said they’ve gotten no indication – so far – that’s coming.
Which leads to another key point: those same Republicans have just as much power – and the majorities – to start moving targeted legislation to force a reversal. At this point, that’s not happening, and there is zero confidence legislation of any kind will pass anytime soon to address the issue, Republican and Democratic aides say.
All eyes are on: Trump going to Capitol Hill on Tuesday afternoon to meet behind closed doors with House Republicans.
“Nobody really knows where he stands, nobody really knows what he’ll say,” one senior GOP aide told me bluntly when this was announced. “Should be a party.”
Can’t overstate: The number of GOP officials, in and out of Capitol Hill, who were emailing and texting about the opinion piece from former first lady Laura Bush in The Washington Post last night. The Bush family is still held in very high regard inside GOP circles, and one of the key reasons is how they’ve operated post-presidency. Rarely, if ever, do the former President or first lady weigh in on anything policy related. This absolutely made an impression Sunday night.
Breaking down the dynamics: The difficulty of this moment is there are three or four different pieces of the immigration debate that are swirling right now, and to some degree crashing into each other.
The House immigration debate
House Republicans are planning – if Trump consents (more on this later) – to vote this week on two immigration proposals. This was set in motion before the family separation issue hit center stage – it’s about another politically polarizing issue: recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump ended but has been left in the court system’s legal limbo.
Both the bills drafted by moderates with GOP leadership and the more conservative option pushed by Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte are expected to include language to address some parts of the family separation issue. But neither plan at this point reverses it – in fact, some of the key players in drafting either bill itself say they have problems with how little it does on the issue.
As for the bills themselves, here’s the reality on that:
The more conservative bill doesn’t – and won’t – have enough votes to pass, according to several GOP aides.
The moderate compromise measure, which is still being tweaked, is largely assumed to be well short at the moment, too. Why? Nobody’s quite sure where Trump stands on it – and leaders couldn’t whip the bill on Friday precisely for that reason. The first real view into where that bill stands will come Tuesday night – after the President speaks behind closed doors to the House GOP conference.
“At this point it’s going to take a major push by POTUS to get it across the finish line” one senior GOP aide said. “And that still might not do the trick.”
The family separation debate
The President wants broad bipartisan immigration legislation that addresses the separation issue. In fact, he (and some of his top aides) has made clear that the family separation issue has become a bargaining chip of sorts in their push for a broader immigration overhaul.
Here’s the bottom line on that: there is no bipartisan immigration overhaul in the works in either chamber. The Senate tried it, and failed. The House is moving through a purely partisan effort right now. Democrats aren’t on the table and there’s little sense on either side that they will be any time soon.
“We’re always ready,” one senior Democratic aide said of immigration negotiations. “But they’re not serious – and what they’re doing right now makes that all the more clear.”
Separately, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has introduced legislation that would directly address the separation issue in the Senate, and all 49 senators who caucus with the Democrats have signed onto the bill as co-sponsors. There has been no indication so far Republicans in either chamber would be willing to take up a standalone bill.
Reality check on this: Republicans – particularly on the midterm campaign side – who were watching this all play out throughout the weekend are keenly aware that holding out for a pie-in-the-sky bipartisan immigration overhaul agreement is untenable. The family separation issue will likely need to be addressed somehow, someway, and soon. “Nobody likes this. Nobody wants this. It’s a mess,” was how one GOP operative put it.
By Monday morning, there were growing signs that a GOP-involved legislative effort – separate and apart from the House immigration debate – was starting to move.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, said in a statement, he was “working with colleagues in both chambers on a path forward that recognizes the need for compassion for children and families without incentivizing illegal border crossings. That solution can and should be bipartisan.”
But at this point, aides say it’s unclear what, if any, future it has at the moment. It’s worth noting that for many, this became a significant issue over the course of the last 48 hours. Senators return to the Capitol on Monday afternoon and will provide the first look at how real any new effort will, in fact, be to address the issue.
Both immigration plans the House will vote on this week are expected to include some family separation language, protocol for which is dictated by a 2015 court settlement that created minimum standards of care for children in US detention. The settlement requires that children who arrive in the US by themselves be released to HHS within three days, and that children with families cannot be held in detention longer than three weeks as they await court proceedings that can often take months if not years.
“The drafts of both bills clarify the Flores Settlement by ensuring accompanied alien minors apprehended at the border can remain with their parent or legal guardian while in DHS custody,” one House GOP source told CNN on Monday. “Drafters are also working to include a provision that not only addresses DHS custody but DOJ custody as well. Note that bill text hasn’t yet been filed for either.”
Overriding the settlement would likely allow families to be detained in Department of Homeland Security facilities indefinitely – and could also revoke the minimum standards of care for children, depending how it is done.
The wall funding debate
Trump meets with West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito on Monday at the White House.
Don’t ignore this meeting – it could turn out to be immensely important. Capito is the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees the Trump administration’s wall funding request. She and
Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, the committee’s chairman, are working to strike a bipartisan deal with Democrats across the board on spending issues – and with good reason – it may be the only path to avoid a shutdown at the end of September. (Politico’s Burgess Everett and John Bresnahan have a really good rundown of that state of play.)
Here’s the bottom line: the administration, according to Senate sources, upped its wall funding request from $1.6 billion in the fiscal year to $2.2 billion. At this point, Senate negotiators are willing to agree to the $1.6 billion, not the $2.2 billion number. We’ll see how the President reacts to that news.
This story has been updated with additional developments and will continue to update with additional developments.
CNN’s Ashley Killough and Tal Kopan contributed to this report.