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Senate border bill clears first procedural hurdle

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.)  (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A Senate measure to deal with the historic influx of illegal immigrants entering the United States from Central America cleared a key procedural hurdle Wednesday morning, providing a glimmer of hope that Congress could still fulfill President Obama's request for emergency funding to deal with the crisis before adjourning Friday for the start of a five-week recess.

The bill still needs to get through more potential procedural obstacles before final passage and it was unclear Wednesday whether it will survive.

Senators voted 63 to 33 to begin formal debate on the measure, which includes $2.7 billion in emergency funding for federal agencies tasked with detaining, housing and eventually deporting the thousands of migrants who have crossed the southern border in recent weeks.

More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors and 55,000 parents with children have been apprehended on the border since October, a sharp increase from last year that has overwhelmed border patrol stations.

Also included in the measure is additional money to help local, state and federal agencies fight raging wildfires in eight western states and about $225 million to help replenish Israel's operational budget for its missile defense system, "Iron Dome." The system, which is paid for primarily with American funding, has successfully targeted and destroyed missiles fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip in recent days.

Needing at least 60 votes to proceed, 52 members of the Senate Democratic caucus were joined by 11 Republicans. Two Democrats, Kay Hagan (N.C.) and Mary Landrieu (La.), both in tough reelection fights, joined 31 Republicans in voting against the measure.

Despite Wednesday's support from Republicans, most GOP lawmakers and some Democrats oppose providing the Obama administration with emergency funding without also making changes to current immigration policy.

In the House, Republicans are poised to approve a $659 million measure that provides far less than what Obama requested. The House plan would require that all unaccompanied children apprehended on the border have their deportation hearings within one week. Currently, backlogs have resulted in wait times of more than a year for many of the children, who are placed with relatives or in shelters as they await their hearings. The change in policy has broad support among Republicans and was considered key to winning enough support from skeptical conservatives.

The White House had tacitly endorsed a change to the law in recent weeks, but most Democrats, along with human rights advocates, opposed overturning the measures that were approved in 2008 to protect children from Central American countries from sex trafficking.

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest objected to the House plan, arguing that the changes to the 2008 law could worsen the situation by imposing an “arbitrary” one-week deadline on deportation hearings. That could force the administration to take resources from other immigration enforcement priorities, he said.

“That sort of inflexible approach only risks bottling up the system further,” Earnest said.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has expressed cautious optimism for his plan, but the clock is working against lawmakers. They’ve set Thursday as departure day for a five-week break for lawmakers to head home and begin campaigning for the November elections.

But with no expectation of Democratic votes for the House plan, it’s unclear if Boehner and his leadership team can find the votes to pass the bill entirely with Republican votes. He has declined to guarantee a vote before Thursday’s departure.

Even if the House passes a bill, it likely would not survive in the Senate. But with the House on the verge of passing an immigration measure, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has floated the possibility of taking the House bill and amending it by adding the comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate last year with bipartisan support. If Senate Democrats can successfully amend the bill and send it back to the House – and even senior leadership aides couldn’t guarantee Tuesday that the strategy would work – it would allow Democrats to make the political argument that House Republicans are avoiding negotiations on a solution to the immigration crisis.

“Maybe it’s an opening for us” to hold negotiations on the bill, Reid told reporters Tuesday. “They are finally sending us something on immigration. Maybe we could do that.” He added later that “I am not threatening anything, but we’ve been looking” for a way to start negotiations.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.



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