By Peter Schroeder - 07/23/14 05:32 PM EDT
Key House Republicans unveiled a plan Wednesday to respond to the border crisis, leaving just six working days to hash out a deal with the Senate before the August recess.
While some Republicans warned doing nothing before the month-long break would open the GOP up to criticism from the White House, there were relatively few signs of urgency on the Republican side.
Conservatives argued that the influx of child immigrants was entirely due to the president’s lax immigration stance.
They said it was his responsibility to solve the problem, not Congress’s.
“The bright dividing line is whether to do anything or not. That’s the big discussion,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.). “The question is, is there any real purpose in going forward when you have a president you can’t trust?”
Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said the group of over 170 House lawmakers met Wednesday afternoon and emerged divided, although he was optimistic the GOP would eventually coalesce around a plan.
“I’d like to be able to tell you I think we walked out of there with an RSC position, but I don’t think that’s true,” he said. “We walked out there with a robust RSC discussion, a lot of questions that still have to be answered.”
The Heritage Foundation, an outside conservative group that has battled with House GOP leaders, said it was reviewing the proposals but criticized them for not including anything related to President Obama's executive actions to not deport certain young people who came or stayed in the U.S. illegally. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has blamed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, saying it is leading young people to try to cross the border.
Democrats reacted to the proposal coolly, suggesting there may be little support from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) troops.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), head of the House Democratic Caucus, accused Republicans of “making ultimatums” and “playing politics” with the issue.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a staunch critic of the GOP policy changes, said Democrats were largely united around resisting changes to a 2008 human trafficking law Republicans say would speed the processing of Central American children for deportation.
“Almost every Democrat I talk to says we should hold the line on the laws passed to protect children from sex-trafficking and smugglers,” he said Wednesday.
Gutierrez said President Obama was wrong to suggest that the law should be changed. Obama’s Homeland Security Department chief this week expressed support for changing the law, which allows minor immigrants from Mexico to be repatriated much more quickly than young immigrants from Central America.
“I understand that people here are used to saying, ‘Oh, but you're a Democrat, aren't you going to follow the president?’” Gutierrez said. “No, if the president's wrong, the president's wrong. I don't think we should change the law.”
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) sent a letter to Obama on Wednesday calling on him to publicly reiterate his support for the changes.
“Frankly, it is difficult to see how we can make progress on this issue without strong, public support from the White House for much-needed reforms, including changes to the 2008 law,” wrote Boehner, who noted public comments from Obama calling for Congress to give his administration discretion to send back young Central American immigrants more quickly.
Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) presented the recommendations of the GOP’s working group on the border crisis at a Republican conference meeting on Wednesday.
Her group recommended deploying the National Guard to the border, changing the trafficking law to more quickly process Central American children and beefing up judicial and law enforcement resources.
Given opposition from some Republicans to doing anything, it’s vital for the GOP to win support from Democrats if they are to move a bill.
Many expressed confidence that when push came to shove, border-state Democrats would back it.
“Dems in border states … obviously are paying attention back home. They will be supportive of that,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), a working group member. “I think that’s going to play well across the aisle with the border state Democrats.”
Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said he thought other Democrats could back the House GOP’s plans.
“Centrist Democrats are looking at this,” Cuellar said.
But there were few if any signs of Democrats joining Cuellar and Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), the lone Democratic co-sponsor to Cuellar's separate bill changing the trafficking law.
Asked how many centrist Democrats might support such a bill, Cuellar said only, “We'll wait until the final vote.”
While Granger was adamant that Congress must pass a border bill before leaving, she emphasized Wednesday that working group plan was merely a set of recommendations, and no legislative language had been drafted yet.
“There will probably be several more meetings…where we hear what’s necessary,” she said.
Those recommendations are likely to be paired with a $1.5 billion GOP spending measure — well below the $3.7 billion requested by Obama. The cost of the GOP bill would be fully offset by cuts elsewhere.
Senate Democrats are working on a rival bill that would provide $2.7 billion in emergency funding, and would not include any of the policy changes Republicans are demanding.
The House proposal would require the Department of Homeland Security to establish a strategy to gain “operational control of the border.” It would also create a third-party commission to set up metrics to measure progress on tightening up security.
To help speed along the processing of immigration cases, Granger’s plan would deploy additional judges. Criminals and gang members would not be permitted to receive asylum under the plan.
The working group also wants to see the U.S. ramp up its efforts in Central American nations to try to stamp out illegal immigration at its source. It calls for the U.s. to launch “aggressive messaging campaigns” in those nations to dispel the idea that people, especially children, can remain in the U.S. if they make it over the border.
Peter Sullivan, Mike Lillis and Cristina Marcos contributed.