WASHINGTON — House Republicans moved toward a vote Thursday to address the immigration crisis on the border, after GOP leaders agreed to conservative demands for a separate vote aimed at blocking President Barack Obama from expanding deportation relief to millions.
The surprise maneuver late Wednesday night appeared to be having the desired effect of locking down conservative lawmakers’ support for the $659 million bill to deal with the crisis involving tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors streaming into the U.S. from Central America.
“I think we’ve done about all the House can do to get the president to do the job he’s supposed to do,” said Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas. “This bill goes a long way to addressing a lot of their concerns.”
The border legislation increases funding for overwhelmed border agencies, adds immigration judges and detention space, sends National Guard troops to the border, and changes the law so that the youths can be sent home quickly without deportation hearings that are now guaranteed. Lawmakers said they wanted to act before returning to their districts to face voters during a five-week summer recess that begins Friday.
But conservative support was soft for the border bill over concerns about giving money to Obama without reining in his ability to take executive action on immigration.
After tea party Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, summoned House conservatives to his office Wednesday evening to strategize against the bill over pizza, House GOP leaders announced they would address conservatives’ concerns by adding a second vote on a bill to block Obama from expanding an existing program that has granted work permits and relief from deportation to hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
White House officials have indicated they plan to expand that program to potentially millions more people in the wake of House inaction on comprehensive immigration legislation. That has infuriated Republicans who blame the existing program — called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — for causing the current border surge by creating a perception that once they are in the U.S., immigrant youths will be allowed to stay. Administration officials dispute that.
Republicans exiting a meeting on the issue Thursday morning said the addition of the second vote appeared to be winning conservatives over, and Cruz also indicated support.
“Sen. Cruz has made DACA an essential element of this debate from the beginning, and it’s very encouraging that the House has taken action to elevate the issue,” said his press secretary Catherine Frazier.
The White House and congressional Democrats were outraged.
In a statement, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the House was “driving an approach that is about rounding up and deporting 11 million people, separating families, and undermining (the Homeland Security Department’s) ability to secure the border.”
Democrats also ridiculed Republicans over the influence Cruz seemed to have over House GOP business, mockingly referring to him as “Speaker Cruz.”
“Mr. Cruz has considerably more sway than some of the leaders in the House,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
Still, the developments in the House did nothing to change the overall stalemate in Congress over the border crisis in South Texas.
In the Senate, lawmakers were debating a much different measure to spend $2.7 billion for the border without the policy changes to send migrants home more quickly, which Democrats oppose. The legislation was not expected to prevail, though more debate was expected in the waning hours before Congress adjourned ahead of recess. Republicans called the Senate bill a blank check for Obama’s failed policies.
More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived since October, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Many are fleeing vicious gangs and are trying to reunite with family members, but they also are drawn by rumors that once here, they would be allowed to stay.
The Homeland Security Department says overwhelmed border agencies will be running out of money in coming months, and Obama asked Congress to agree to provide $3.7 billion.