Senate kills border bill; Congress leaving town for 5 weeks
WASHINGTON (CNN) — On what was supposed to be the last day before summer recess, dysfunction reigned in Congress.
House Republican leaders called off a vote Thursday on their $659 million emergency response to the border influx from Central America overwhelming immigration resources, unable to agree among themselves about what to do.
That sparked a revolt in their caucus over doing nothing, which forced GOP leaders to delay the start of August break to discuss the matter further on Friday morning.
Asked what happens now, Speaker John Boehner said he’d be working with his caucus. Asked if that would go into the night, he responded: “Oh yeah.”
Meanwhile, a separate Senate border measure proposed by Democrats failed to overcome a Republican filibuster later Thursday, effectively killing it for now.
The end result? Politicians eventually go home for five weeks to campaign for the November congressional elections without sending President Barack Obama legislation to address what both parties agree is a humanitarian crisis at the southern border.
Such inability to compromise, let alone even pass any kind of legislation, showed the volatility of the immigration issue in America just over three months before the November elections.
Obama asked for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to strengthen border security and speed up the processing of the tens of thousands of arrivals — many unaccompanied minors — from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in the past 10 months.
House Republicans slashed that figure and added changes to a 2008 anti-trafficking law that would remove the guarantee of an immigration hearing for children arriving on their own from Central America.
Facing Democratic opposition, GOP leaders needed almost all of their majority caucus to support the bill.
However, many Republicans — mostly conservatives — argued against approving any new money and argued the measure failed to effectively limit Obama from acting on his own to allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country.
They contend he has failed to enforce immigration laws by halting deportations of some child immigrants who arrived years earlier. And they now expect further unilateral steps signaled by the White House that would allow more undocumented immigrants to work in the United States.
After a partisan debate on the measure, an expected vote suddenly got canceled. A subsequent 90-minute GOP caucus meeting behind closed doors resulted in the decision to keep going on Friday to get something passed, participants said.
“I was prepared to be very critical of the decision to go home but thankfully the leadership is doing the right thing and saying we’re going to get this thing through,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, while Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana described it as “an emotional ‘we’ve got to do something’ kind of cheerleading event.”
Several House Republicans told CNN that GOP leaders made it clear they won’t hold a vote on the border bill until they knew it had enough support t pass, even it that took beyond Friday.
It was an embarrassing result for Boehner and his new leadership team put together after former Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary defeat last month, displaying the continuing deep divisions between conservative and more moderate House Republicans that has caused similar episodes in the past on other spending matters.
“This situation shows the intense concern within our conference — and among the American people — about the need to ensure the security of our borders and the President’s refusal to faithfully execute our laws,” the House Republican leadership said in a statement.
In one of the political ironies of Washington, the GOP leaders called for Obama to take steps on his own to address the border issue without congressional approval, a day after voting to sue him for doing exactly that.
“There are numerous steps the President can and should be taking right now, without the need for congressional action, to secure our borders and ensure these children are returned swiftly and safely to their countries,” the statement said.
Shortly after, White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer tweeted: “By pulling their own bill, the House GOP once again proves why the President must act on his own to solve problems.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama will do what he can to address immigration reform because House Republicans have refused to vote on a comprehensive measure passed last year by the Senate.
“The President can’t do as much as Congress could do in terms of addressing some of these problems, but we’re gonna figure out what exactly the law will allow the President to do and we’re going to do as much as possible within the confines of the law to address a problem whose solution Republicans in Congress continue to actively block,” Earnest said.
He told reporters the Obama administration already shifted resources from the nation’s interior to the border to try to speed up the processing of new arrivals.
“We have surged some technology to allow immigration judges and other ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) prosecutors and asylum officials the opportunity to try to whittle down the bottleneck or the backlog of immigration cases that currently exists,” Earnest said. “We’ve prioritized the cases of recent border crossers to try to process those cases more efficiently.”
Republicans led by conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama say Obama plans to unilaterally issue work permits to as many as 6 million immigrants living illegally in the United States, which the critics call a violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Sessions tried to get an amendment that would block such presidential action added to the Senate border legislation, but Democrats defeated his motion.
However, Senate Democrats were unable later to secure the 60 votes necessary to overcome a budget challenge against the measure, which included $2.7 billion in immigration funding along with $900 million to fight U.S. wildfires and bolster Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.
Sessions raised the budget challenge, noting the total $3.6 billion cost of the proposal would all be borrowed.
CNN’s Dana Bash contributed to this report.