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Republicans in Congress look for way out of border crisis as Trump publicly stands his ground

Republicans in Congress look for way out of border crisis as Trump publicly stands his ground
President Trump speaks at the National Federation of Independent Business' 75th anniversary celebration on Tuesday in Washington. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Senate Republicans mobilized on Tuesday to end the administration's policy of separating children from their migrant parents — and the mounting political backlash — as President Trump publicly held firm, warning that those illegally crossing the border "infest our Country."

Yet cracks appeared in the White House's hard line as well, as outrage against the policy grew amid continued media coverage of bedraggled children penned in austere government detention centers.

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An administration official suggested the president might sign a narrow bill to address the issue, despite his public demands that any measure include $25 billion for his promised border wall and new limits on legal immigration.

"The president wants a comprehensive fix," the official stressed, adding, "but he is willing to strongly consider legislation that would address the separation issue."

Late in the day Trump met at the Capitol with House Republicans about their proposals for a comprehensive immigration bill. After rambling remarks, including familiar recollections about his 2016 victory, he spoke little of the controversy over separating families or immigration policy generally, and left without giving party leaders the full endorsement they sought for their bill, according to accounts from those in the room.

Hours earlier, in a partisan speech to a friendly small-business organization, Trump stuck to his demand that Congress address the crisis as part of a wide-ranging immigration bill that includes money for a border wall. He ignored calls, including from Republicans, that he could end his own six-week-old policy simply with a word.

Faced with the president's resistance to act, however, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters at the Capitol that Senate Republicans would devise "a plan that keeps families together."

The plan seems likely to accomplish that by detaining families as a whole, not by allowing them to be free pending a deportation hearing, as was typically the case until last month.

McConnell's deputy, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), said the Senate could act "in a matter of days, hopefully this week." More than a dozen Senate Republicans signed a letter to Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions urging him to suspend family separations until a legislative fix can be signed into law.

"I don't think anyone has the patience to let him hold children hostage for a wall," one senior Republican aide in the Senate said. "He can get that funding the old-fashioned way, through a budget request."

It remained unclear, however, whether House Republicans would go along. And Senate Democrats, believing they have the upper hand politically, are resisting giving Republicans help to fix the issue.

"Legislation is not the way to go here, when it's so easy for the president to sign it," Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer told reporters.

More Republicans echoed that sentiment, even as they searched for legislative fixes.

"The White House could change it in five minutes, and they should. It's a mistake. It's a change in policy by this administration," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a senior Republican from Tennessee.

Senators in both parties have proposed limited legislation to end the family separations, which have put more than 2,000 children in detention centers since the Trump administration announced its "zero tolerance" policy six weeks ago. Many parents now face criminal as well as civil prosecution, and because children can't be jailed with their parents, they are detained separately.

All Senate Democrats have endorsed a bill by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, while Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican facing reelection in Texas, where much of the crisis is playing out, has proposed a separate measure. The proposals take different tacks to prevent the Department of Homeland Security from separating children from their parents at the border.

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Trump, in his earlier remarks to the National Federation of Independent Business, reiterated that he doesn't want families split, yet defended the policy as putting a stop to "thousands" of child smugglers crossing the border.

The president assailed proposals — like Cruz's — to provide more immigration judges to expedite the backlog of asylum cases at the border. His Justice Department recently announced it was sending 18 additional judges to the border region, however. Cruz's bill calls for hundreds more.

"I don't want judges. I want border security," Trump said in an extraordinary attack on the longstanding immigration courts system. "We have to have a real border. Not judges. Thousands and thousands of judges they want to hire. Who are these people?"

The president riffed for nearly 20 minutes at the business luncheon on the topic of immigration, veering from scripted lines demonizing child smugglers and Democrats to an aside blaming Mexico for allowing smugglers and drug traffickers to reach the border.

"Mexico, they do nothing for us," Trump said. "Try staying in Mexico a couple days — see how long that lasts."

The president asserted that the administration's choice on family separations was a hard but necessary one: "We can either release all immigrant families and minors who show up at the border from Central America," he said. "Or we can arrest the adults for the federal crime of illegal entries."

He added: "Those are the only two options: Totally open borders or criminal prosecution for lawbreaking."

Trump attacked the news media for its reporting on the border crisis. Since late last week, the near-blanket television coverage and published reports from the border — with images of young children alone inside detention centers and an audio recording of wailing toddlers — has spawned one of the largest backlashes of the tumultuous Trump administration.

"They are fake," he said of the news media, drawing applause. "They are helping these traffickers and these smugglers like nobody would believe. They know it."

As he has throughout the controversy, Trump attempted to blame Democrats even though it was his administration that formally announced the policy in May, after considering it since the early days of his presidency. The administration opted to shift to a zero tolerance approach with asylum seekers, believing that the separation of immigrant parents and children would serve as a deterrent to illegal immigration.

Bridging the differences among Republicans in control of the White House and Congress is essential to getting any immigration legislation into law, and that didn't seem any closer after Tuesday's events.

"A bigger problem thus far than any policy in particular is the inability to explain it," said Josh Holmes, a Republican consultant and former chief of staff to McConnell. "A failure to have a consistent message about what you're trying to accomplish yields the reality to the pictures that you're seeing on TV, and the pictures that people are seeing are horrifying."

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As the border crisis showed no sign of ending, only worsening, the question was whether Trump could resist the public pressure to reverse his policy while holding out for legislation.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, whose restrictionist views on immigration often align with the administration's, suggested that Trump, despite his preference for a broad bill that includes border wall funding and limits on legal as well as illegal immigration, would likely accept a narrower measure like the Cruz proposal.

"I don't see Trump vetoing that if they pass that," Krikorian said.

UPDATES:

4:45 p.m.: This article was updated with new details on Senate Republicans and Trump's meeting with House Republicans.

This article was originally published at 12:40 p.m.

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