After their lunch Tuesday, the leader of the Senate Republicans walked out to reporters and said something remarkable for this political moment: They don't agree with President Trump's policy of separating families at the border, and his entire caucus supports a plan to end the practice.
“I support, and all of the members of the Republican conference support, a plan to keep families together while their immigration status is determined,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.
Republicans in Congress know full well that Trump is responsible for a new policy at the border that has led to more than 2,000 children being separated from their parents and put in detention centers.
And since Trump has refused to end that, Republican senators seem to have decided that they'll take matters into their own hands.
The Senate's No. 2, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), is drafting legislation to keep together families who are apprehended after crossing the border without documents. So is one of the most conservative members of Congress, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). McConnell announced Tuesday that all 50 currently present Republican members of the Senate would support something like those plans.
“This requires a solution,” McConnell said, “a narrow agreement to fix a problem that we all agree needs to be fixed.”
Words don't automatically equate to action, of course. There's already a bill in the Senate to end family separations, and Republicans have basically ignored it. Every single Senate Democrat — including those running for reelection in states Trump won in 2016 — has signed on to the proposal from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). No Republican has, although at least one House Republican, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), wants to sponsor it in the House of Representatives.
Senate Republicans are also reluctantly playing Trump's disingenuous game about which branch of government is to blame for what's happening. The facts are clear: Trump's administration started separating families, and Trump's administration can end it. A number of high-profile Senate Republicans have called out the president when he blames Congress or Democrats for allowing families to be torn apart.
“The White House can fix it if they want to. I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said.
McConnell, who is the longest-serving Senate Republican leader in history, knows this brewing humanitarian, media and political crisis is Trump's doing. Neither the Obama nor Bush administrations interpreted in this way the law under which Trump is implementing the separations.
And yet McConnell has decided to focus on passing a bill to stop Trump rather than trying to force the president to end the policy himself. “Obviously the president has called on us to fix the problem,” McConnell said.
It was a tacit recognition by McConnell that if they're going to confront Trump on policy, they at least need to match him in rhetoric. You want to blame Congress? Sure, fine, McConnell seems to be saying. As long as we find a way to stop these family separations.
McConnell also didn't say whether he would take a different step to stop the president by approving a temporary, immediate pause on the separations while this gets worked out legislatively. Hatch is working on such a proposal.
If Senate Republicans do pass something to end a policy they know Trump started, it will be the most significant rebuke to the president since they forced him to reluctantly sign a Russia sanctions bill into law last summer.
And it won't be the first legislative slap the Republican-controlled Senate has given Trump this week. On Monday, the Senate overwhelmingly voted for a defense bill that also reinstates penalties for Chinese telecom giant ZTE, penalties Trump controversially lifted to save Chinese jobs. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a Trump ally, led the effort on the Republican side to put U.S. penalties back on ZTE.
Both the ZTE measure and any plan to end family separations that comes out of the Senate will have to pass the House of Representatives, too. It's not clear whether that will happen, let alone whether Trump will sign either bill. (The ZTE measure is velcroed to a broader defense spending bill that Trump would be extremely hesitant to veto.)
Still, the fact that Senate Republicans are seriously considering taking action to confront Trump is a notable marker in their ever-fraying relationship with him.
McConnell is particularly loath to do two things right now: deal with the touchy subject of immigration so close to an election and confront Trump so close to an election.
He just said he's going to do both anyway, for the sake of stopping the Trump administration from tearing families apart at the border.