House and Senate GOP looking for way out of family separation problem
Concerned about political repercussions from a President Donald Trump administration policy that has resulted in the separation of parents illegally crossing the border from their children, House and Senate Republicans are scrambling for a plan to address the issue.
The importance of the issue for Nevada was highlighted by a decision by Republican Sen. Dean Heller, the most vulnerable Senate Republican, to sign on to a letter calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to halt the “zero tolerance” policy while Congress comes up with a legislation solution.
“We cannot support implementation of a policy that results in the categorical forced separation of minor children from their parents,” according to a letter signed by Heller and roughly a quarter of Senate Republicans. “We therefore ask you to halt implementation of the Department’s zero tolerance policy while Congress works out a solution.”
The Republican effort to guard against the political fallout came as Trump came to Capitol Hill Tuesday to rally House Republicans to pass legislation that includes a provision to keep families of asylum-seekers together. Trump acknowledged that the policy risked turning into a public-relations problem.
“He acknowledged that the optics were awful,” Rep. Mark Amodei (R., Nev.) said of Trump’s comments in a closed-door meeting with House GOP lawmakers.
But the outlook for a compromise House bill is uncertain at best, as House Republican leaders Tuesday evening were gauging support for the proposal, a compromise bill, which was negotiated between conservatives, moderates and the White House.
“That’s a fair question. Who knows?” Amodei said when asked about the bill’s prospects. He does not expect Democrats to vote for the bill, so Republicans will need to provide the 218 votes needed to pass it.
Amodei said he has not decided how to vote because the proposal was still being finalized and he wanted to review the latest iteration.
House GOP leaders also have not officially scheduled a vote, but could before the end of the week.
Trump’s meeting with House Republicans comes after a multiplying number of negative news stories caused a growing number of Republicans, worried about the political fallout, to publicly advocate for a solution. Besides growing calls for action among House Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he wants to work with Senate Democrats to enact a narrow fix to address the issue of family-separation.
“I think we need to fix the problem, it requires a legislative solution...we need to come together and fix it,” McConnell said.
But Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Senate Democrats want Trump to end the policy rather than have Congress act, noting that the Senate has tried and failed to pass immigration legislation this year.
“Let’s hope the president does the right thing and solves the problem, which he can do,” Schumer said. “That’s the simple, easiest and most likely way this will happen.”
The issue began in April when the White House announced that it would begin to prosecute all illegal entries in the country as crimes, including those seeking asylum. Children are separated from their parents when the parents are charged with a crime and detained because of a decades-old court settlement that bars the government from jailing migrant children.
Prior to the change, asylum-seekers who crossed the border illegally were released and told to come back for their case to be decided. The practice, known as “catch and release” by Republicans, has been criticized by Trump who promised to end it.
Democrats including Rep. Dina Titus, Rep. Jacky Rosen, Rep. Ruben Kihuen and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, have been critical of the Trump administration for the policy, either calling on Congress to act or for Trump to reverse course.
When asked if Trump should change the policy, Amodei said it’s better for Congress, which is more permanent that an administrative fix. He also said that fobbing off the responsibility to the White House would be hypocritical.
“The history is we won’t do anything,” if the administration acts, Amodei said. “And quite frankly, this is also the Republican Party that griped to high heaven when the previous administration was doing all this by executive order.”
Trump spoke for an hour on various topics, including trade and the economy “with ‘vote for the bill’ sprinkled in,” Amodei said.
At one point, Trump, unprompted, said he “was not going to cut the limb” from underneath the lawmakers that back the bill, Amodei added, noting that he was paraphrasing the president.
The line was a reference to the interview Trump gave to Fox and Friends Friday when he said he would not sign the compromise bill. The White House later issued a statement suggesting that Trump misspoke, but the damage was done, with many conservatives unsure about backing the proposal. The president’s meeting with the House GOP Tuesday was designed to help reassure members of his support.
Amodei was one of 23 Republicans who signed on to a plan to join with House Democrats to force a vote on four immigration bills through a process known as a discharge petition. Under that process, a vote would have taken place in this month had 218 members, including 25 Republicans, signed on to the petition. But the deadline for that came and went after House GOP leaders managed to keep the last two GOP members from signing the petition by negotiating directly with moderates, many of whom represent districts with immigrant communities and see a vote on the issue helpful to their re-election efforts.
He credited the effort with getting movement on the issue in the House.
“Everybody was focused on this as of two or three weeks ago, so now when this blows...the troops are on the line and you can do something,” Amodei said, adding, “You’re welcome, Mr. Speaker.”
In addition to addressing family separation, the bill also would fix the status of young undocumented immigrants known as DREAMers who were extended protections under a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Trump tried to set a March end date for the program known as DACA, but was blocked by the courts while DACA’s future is decided in the judicial system.
The compromise measure would provide a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients through a merit-based point system. The measure ends the diversity visa lottery, cuts family-based visas and would legalize DACA recipients allowing them to renew their legal status every six years.
The compromise package would authorize more than $20 billion over the next decade for the border wall and make it harder for a future Congress to rescind the money by making benefits for DACA recipients contingent on Congress providing the funding. The measure also addresses family separation by allowing families to stay together while their asylum cases are adjudicated.
Amodei said he wanted to get more specifics on how the contingency provision would work.
The more conservative option, sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, would not provide a pathway to citizenship, but would provide a legal status for DACA recipients, which can be renewed every three years. The bill also curtails legal immigration and raises the bar for asylum-seekers.
Meanwhile, Trump is set to stump for Heller this weekend after speaking at the Nevada Republican Party’s convention in Las Vegas this weekend. Trump’s visit coincides with the wave of negative news stories about the family separation issue.
A CNN poll released this week found that 67 percent of Americans disapprove of the policy of separating adult asylum-seekers from their children while only 28 percent approve.
Prior to Heller signing on the letter seeking an end to the Trump administration’s family-separation policy, he sought to distance himself from the policy. "Senator Heller doesn’t support separating children from their families, and he believes that this issue highlights just how broken our immigration system is and why Congress must act to fix it," his office said in a statement provided to ABC News Monday.
Heller, who faces a tough re-election campaign against Rep. Jacky Rosen, a Democrat, has mostly embraced Trump’s policies on immigration, despite the president's harsh rhetoric and the influential immigrant community in Nevada, where one in every five residents hails from outside the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But Heller needs to keep Republican base voters excited to ensure they turn out and vote for him on Election Day. Not allowing any daylight between himself and the president on an issue like immigration could help with that goal.
However, the Nevada Republican’s support of the president could turn off independent and moderate voters he’ll need to reclaim his Senate seat.
Trump is not popular in Nevada, a state which he lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016. A poll commissioned by The Nevada Independent in April found that 39 percent of respondents said they favored Trump, compared to nearly 56 percent who said they had an unfavorable opinion.