House passes two Republican measures in response to surge of child migrants

House Republicans vote to speed up deportations of Central American migrants, including unaccompanied children, as lawmakers passed a $694 million border security bill. (Reuters)

House Republicans managed Friday to overcome deep divisions within the party and passed two measures to address the child-migrant surge at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The bills would provide emergency funding to deal with the crisis, speed the deportations of most border-crossers and rescind President Obama’s authority to decide whether to deport certain illegal immigrants.

The measures are unlikely to become law, as the White House, most Democrats and immigration advocates strongly oppose the proposals.

The votes amounted to a do-over and a crucial victory for a new GOP leadership team and provided rank-and-file Republicans with recorded proof that they attempted to address the border issue, after struggling Thursday to reach intraparty consensus. But with the House unable to broker an agreement with the Senate over how to respond to Obama’s emergency request to handle the crisis, the president promised Friday that he would move ahead with his own response.

“I’m going to have to act alone,” Obama said, because federal resources have run dry with the lack of legislation. “We’ve run out of money.”

President Obama slammed House Republicans for not passing a border crisis bill before the August recess, saying that they are forcing him to take executive action, which is the very thing they are suing him for. (The Associated Press)

Obama continued his recent habit of castigating congressional Republicans, saying the party is not “actually trying to solve the problem” of immigration but instead is attempting to pass legislation so they can “check a box before they leave town for a month.”

The votes held late Friday — a rare occurrence any time of the year on Capitol Hill — capped a week of turmoil in the GOP ranks prompted by fierce opposition from the party’s conservative members to doing anything that could be perceived as an endorsement of Obama’s current immigration policy. With conservatives threatening to withhold support, top leaders abruptly withdrew border security legislation Thursday afternoon and announced plans to leave Washington without acting. Infuriated, several GOP moderates confronted Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on the House floor, forcing them to recalibrate and cancel plans to begin the recess.

The collapse of the original border security plan offered by House GOP leaders was a triumph for conservatives in the Republican caucus, who saw it as a high point in their troubled relationship with Boehner and his more centrist leadership team.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), one of those conservatives, described the retreat by Boehner as one of the highlights of her career, because the leadership was forced to mostly capitulate to the conservative demands.

“Leadership knew they couldn’t pass their bill,” Bachmann said, and as a result were forced to agree to revisions offered by tea party members, led by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a vocal opponent of Obama’s immigration policy who has been criticized by Democrats and immigration advocates for his harsh descriptions of migrants seeking to cross the border.

When the conservatives sat down to hash out differences with GOP leadership Thursday night in the basement of the U.S. Capitol, “it went as smooth as silk,” Bachmann said. “Steve laid it out, and in less than two hours, we worked it out. It was really a painless process. But it was the first time that I’ve seen leadership recognize, with respect and admiration, the work that Steve King did. Steve helped to completely gut this bill.”

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), another conservative who attended the meeting, gave leaders credit for allowing conservatives to air their concerns. “Those concerns were addressed. To me, that’s the way the process should work,” he said.

More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors have crossed into the United States from Mexico since October 2013. Here are 10 numbers to know about the growing humanitarian crisis. (Tom LeGro and Natalie Jennings/The Washington Post)

By Friday, the rebels were feeling bullish. Walking into a closed-door meeting of Republicans, King told reporters, “I think we’ll get a deal done.” Once inside, he spoke in support of the legislation.

Most rank-and-file members predicted that the struggle to secure the necessary votes would be resolved quickly.

“I’m so confident, I’ve got a packed bag,” Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) said Friday morning as he carried a military camouflaged backpack into the closed-door meeting. Other Republicans were seen pulling suitcases into the Capitol in anticipation of quick getaways.

Ultimately, members voted 223 to 189 to approve $694 million in additional funding for federal agencies dealing with the influx of immigrants — a sum far lower than Obama’s original $3.7 billion request. The bill would tweak a 2008 anti-trafficking law and make it easier for the government to deport Central American minors who have entered the United States illegally. It also would provide $35 million to border-state governors, who would be given broader legal authority to deploy the National Guard.

Concerns about a governor’s ability to deploy National Guard troops came to a head in recent weeks as Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) took steps to activate about 1,000 troops to deploy to the Rio Grande Valley, after he said Obama had rebuffed requests for a federal deployment order.

Four Republicans, some of the most conservative in the chamber, voted against the bill.

All but one Democrat voted against the bill, reflecting the opposition of the White House and several organizations working with illegal immigrants, including prominent religious leaders. In a sharply worded statement, Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle, who leads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ work on immigration issues, called passage of the legislation “a low point for our country. It eviscerates American values of justice and due process and stains our record as a defender of human rights globally.”

Later in the evening, Republicans passed a second, more aggressive proposal backed by the most ardent conservatives that would curtail an Obama administration program that provides protections to about 500,000 immigrants who were brought to the country as children. The bill passed 216 to 192 with 11 Republicans voting against it and four Democrats voting for it. One Democrat voted present.

Republicans in recent weeks have cited the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as a key enticement for illegal migrants seeking to make their way north to the United States.

Democrats blasted Republicans for introducing the legislation, saying that it would unfairly target hundreds of thousands of law-abiding children and their parents.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who represents a Miami-area district packed with immigrants from across Latin America, said that he and other moderates in similar districts planned to vote against the bill, “but I don’t criticize folks for being concerned about the president overstepping his constitutional boundary.”

“Most of the conservatives who have a problem [with DACA] have more of a problem with how the president did it than what the president did,” Diaz-Balart said.

House Democrats, with little to do but wait for Republicans to decide how to proceed, tried in vain repeatedly Friday to introduce a competing immigration measure that includes a proposal approved in a bipartisan fashion last year by the Senate. But Republicans objected each time.

Dozens of Democrats also took to the House floor to criticize Republicans for attempting to turn back young immigrants fleeing violence in Central America or for seeking to end the temporary relief provided to some children of illegal immigrants.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) said the Republican legislation “has only one message: ‘Deport! Deport! Deport!’ ”

During a news conference held by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) switched between English and Spanish to express his outrage. Using Spanish to address Spanish-language television reporters, he said Republicans “want to punish our community. And the punishment will be reciprocated with a political punishment. Be sure that we are not going to forget the bad treatment that our community has received.”

The votes held late Friday capped a week of turmoil on Capitol Hill as both chambers stumbled toward resolution on a series of complex issues. The Senate adjourned Friday after approving $225 million in emergency funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, a measure adopted later by the House by a 395-to-8 vote.

But senators failed to confirm dozens of nominees to serve as U.S. ambassadors to several countries, including Guatemala — where much of the immigration crisis originates — and South Korea, a key Asian ally.

With lawmakers preparing to scatter for campaign rallies, town hall meetings, taxpayer-funded fact-finding missions and vacations with family and friends, House and Senate leaders made plans to reconvene the week of Sept. 8, with less than two weeks’ worth of legislative days scheduled before Election Day in November.

Paul Kane and Katie Zezima contributed to this report.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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