With the family separations crisis still boiling on the border, the House on Thursday voted down a conservative immigration bill and abruptly postponed a vote on a more moderate proposal pitched as a compromise between battling Republican factions, an embarrassing setback for House leaders.
The first bill collapsed in a 193-231 vote, and the vote on the second was pushed back until next week to avoid back-to-back defeats. Both bills were largely seen as partisan measures with almost no path to becoming law, the latest failure in Congress to reach consensus on how to repair what both parties agree is a broken immigration system.
The first bill would have provided nearly $25 billion for a border wall, made steep cuts to legal immigration programs, and provided temporary legal status for young people brought into the country as children. The second would go further by offering the so-called Dreamers a pathway to citizenship.
That proved too much for Republican hard-liners, who vowed to block the moderates’ bill. In House races across the country, immigration has become a contested issue, with Republicans wary not to alienate conservative voters and possibly depress turnout in the November midterm election.
“I’m a big fat no. Capital letters,” said Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.). “And I’m going to encourage other people to vote no because it doesn’t stop amnesty.”
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said Republican moderates “were in great danger of being exposed for being totally out of touch.”
Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who had attempted to broker a deal between moderate and conservative Republican factions on the second bill, appeared resigned to defeat Thursday, telling Fox News that lawmakers were “planting seeds” for an “ultimate solution.”
President Trump, who had repeatedly urged Congress to act, did not help Ryan when he suggested in a tweet that the House was wasting its time by considering either bill. “What is the purpose of the House doing good immigration bills” when Senate Democrats are unlikely to pass the Republican bills, he wrote.
Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) said Trump’s tweet — which may simply reflect a White House recognition that the conservative bill was doomed anyway — could sway undecided Republicans to vote against the more moderate bill next week.
“Rather than encouraging people to vote for it, [Trump] gave them a reason not to vote for it by saying, ‘What’s the point of having the vote if the Senate isn’t going to pass it?’” he said.
Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) attributed the internecine Republican battle to the complex politics of immigration.
“This is something that hasn’t been tackled in 30 years,” he said. “Not trying to give ourselves a pass but … one way or the other you lose people because of the complexities and the sensitivities and the emotions in this particular piece of legislation.”
Actually, Congress has sought to overhaul immigration law several times in recent decades. In 2013, a bipartisan immigration reform bill passed the Senate by a large margin but died in the House when Republican leaders refused to take it up. Among other provisions, the bill would have added up to 40,000 additional Border Patrol officers.
The moderates’ bill facing a vote next week would earmark $23 billion for construction of a border wall, a priority for Trump, and make steep cuts to legal immigration programs, a potential poison pill for Democrats.
But it also provides legal status and a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 800,000 immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. The status of the Dreamers has been in limbo since federal courts blocked Trump’s attempts last year to rescind a temporary deportation relief program.
As a political backlash to the family separations at the border grew, lawmakers added a provision to address the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy to prosecute all people suspected of entering the country illegally for misdemeanors.
Similar to the executive order Trump signed Wednesday, it mandates that families be detained together while adults go through criminal proceedings. It does not solve the more immediate problem of how to reunite more than 2,300 children who were taken from their parents since early May and are scattered in detention facilities across the country.
The legislation has taken on new urgency as the executive order is expected to face legal challenges in connection with the Flores agreement, a landmark 21-year-old court settlement under which immigrant minors can be detained no longer than 20 days.
Trump administration officials cited that court case when deciding to separate children from parents and guardians going through criminal proceedings. Images of toddlers crying behind chain-link fences, and reports of federal agents taking infants and young children to distant states, forced a rare retreat from the White House.
Democrats and other opponents of the administration’s policy say that court case is not the root of the problem, noting that separating families was the exception, not the rule, for most of the two decades since the Flores case was resolved.
Administration officials refused to say what they would do with the migrant children in three weeks should they fail to get an exemption from a court or pass legislation through Congress. Nor did the administration have plans to begin reuniting families already separated.
The more hard-line proposal did not address family separations at the border, nor did it offer a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers. It made steeper cuts to legal immigration programs and had little support even among Republican members.
Upon signing his executive order Wednesday, the president said he still wanted passage of a broad immigration bill, and House Republican leaders have pushed recalcitrant members to support the more moderate of the immigration proposals. But most Democrats opposed it along with Republican conservatives unwilling to support granting citizenship to Dreamers.
Senate leaders from both parties expressed little support for the House bills.