Congressional leaders in both the Senate and the House have spent days trying to find a bill that would end family separations at the border, but as of Wednesday morning, it’s not clear if any option has the votes to pass.
Senate Republicans are attempting to coalesce around legislation to address in a narrow, targeted way the “zero tolerance” policy that’s led to family separation. Senate Democrats are opposed to the effort entirely because it’s something President Donald Trump can do on his own.
House Republicans are trying desperately to wrangle the votes on a broader bill, which would overhaul the immigration system that includes a path to address the family separations. House GOP leaders still don’t have the votes – and even if they get them, the bill has no pathway to passage in the Senate.
This all as the President makes clear he won’t reverse course – and his Capitol Hill meeting Tuesday failed to move the ball forward on a compromise bill.
Bottom line: For all of the legislative churn in both chambers, there’s no pathway to a solution of any kind for the family separation issue at the moment. And none hanging out there in the wings. Given the issue has become a flashpoint for outrage across both Capitol Hill and the country, that’s a problem.
Did the President give the efforts any boost on the Hill Tuesday night?
Not really, according to House GOP members and staff. He barely touched on the family separation issue during his 45-minute remarks, and while he said he was behind Republicans “100%,” he “left a lot hanging out there” in terms of where he actually was on the details House GOP compromise bill.
“We’ve been burned too many times by him to just go all in because he showed up,” one House GOP member who is still on the fence told CNN on Tuesday night.
In general, the member said of the President: “He was good – said he was behind us, that he loved us, but it wasn’t a game-changer by any means.”
About last night
House GOP leaders had one goal – to have the President forcefully back the second of two immigration overhauls slated for votes on Thursday, which was the result of negotiations between moderates, conservatives and leadership.
House Speaker Paul Ryan teed Trump up in a deliberate manner, walking through the bill and noting repeatedly that it tracked with Trump’s priorities. Then Trump took the floor and talked – about trade (He told Republicans to relax – he knew what he was doing, sources inside the room said).
He also talked regulatory reform, his North Korea meeting and told the gathered lawmakers they were a “hot group” because of how well things were going. He attacked a member of the conference for losing his primary – South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford.
When he got to immigration, the President said he was supportive of the House GOP efforts, but left some members unclear what he actually supported (the White House put out a statement after the meeting saying he supported the compromise bill).
In other words: It was a vintage Trump-on-Capitol-Hill performance – freewheeling, hitting various pieces of the greatest hits you often hear in his public remarks, not very focused on the issue at hand and allowing everyone to hear what they wanted. What it wasn’t? Clear-eyed, full-throated support and effort to lay out the strategy on the way forward on immigration.
What the President said about family separations
Trump said he knew they looked bad – and that his daughter, Ivanka, told him something needed to be done about them. That was pretty much it, according to multiple people in the room.
“The message was: you guys have to fix it,” one GOP lawmaker said. “Not even a hint of a sign he’d reverse the administration’s current course.”
The prospects for the House “compromise” bill
GOP leaders have another 24 hours to get the votes, but by several accounts, the first effort to whip the bill on Tuesday night made clear there is a lot of work to do.
“Not there, not sure we’ll get there. We’ll see,” one member of the whip team told me.
Again, members heard what they wanted, and Trump saying he was behind, well, something “100%” is helpful to some degree. But the bill already had a tall hill to climb. It remains clear the harder-line proposal won’t have the votes. Whether the compromise proposal gets across the finish line is still very much an open question.
What the House bill does on family separation
The House leadership compromise bill would essentially overturn a policy that caps how many days (understood to be 20) that children can stay in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security, and would mandate that family units would stay together during criminal proceedings (which is currently the driving force behind the separations given the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy). The bill also would allow Homeland Security to tap into a $7 billion pot of money for new or expanded residential centers to house the families in custody.
The House bill’s future if it gets the votes is dim to non-existent. Any immigration proposal would need 60 votes in the Senate. Democrats have made clear the compromise proposal will fall well short of that, even if House leaders manage to scrounge together the votes for it.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear Tuesday all 51 Senate Republicans are unified behind the need to do something to stop the policy. What they coalesce behind is going to be narrow and targeted – likely something along the lines of overturning the consent decree that restricts how long migrant children can be held in DHS custody, according to senators. Republicans do want to try and hold a vote on something as soon as this week.
But Senate Democrats aren’t budging; they will not engage, negotiate or put up a bill to try and address the family separation crisis, leaders announced Tuesday (though all 49 senators who caucus with the party do support a proposal).
The reason? The President can fix it himself, and any legislative effort will get bogged down and fail. Or, as Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement after Trump left the House GOP meeting: “Anyone who believes this Republican Congress is capable of addressing this issue is kidding themselves. The President can end this crisis with the flick of his pen and needs to do so now.”
Thirteen GOP senators: That’s how many signed a letter, spearheaded by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, asking the President to freeze the zero tolerance policy until a legislative solution is reached. CNN asked McConnell if he supported a freeze Tuesday. He made clear that, at least at the moment, he does not.