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Congress Debrief: Cruz walks political tightrope as he criticizes separation policy but not Trump

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Republicans grappled this week with the fallout from President Trump’s policy of separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border, walking a political tightrope by insisting that the practice should end but refusing to blame the president for enforcing it.

No Republican epitomized the challenge more than Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.).

A longtime immigration hard-liner who faces reelection in November, Cruz scrambled to find a plan to keep families together, after initially playing down concerns about Trump’s directive as his Democratic challenger made high-profile visits to the border and a tent city housing children.

But like most members of his party, Cruz refrained from criticizing Trump, whose “zero tolerance” immigration policy has resulted in more than 2,300 children being separated from their parents since early May. In an abrupt reversal, Trump signed an executive order Wednesday ending the practice and aiming to keep families together in custody as they await legal proceedings.

Senate GOP leaders were still talking about modest legislation, even after the plans for the executive order took shape.

Cruz’s straddle highlighted dual concerns in the party five months before the midterm election. Candidates fear an electoral backlash from the escalating border crisis captured in images of children in metal cages, but don’t want to draw the wrath of Trump’s loyal base clamoring for a crackdown on illegal immigration.

Asked Tuesday if Trump was culpable for family separations, Cruz declined to blame him. Instead, he singled out a prior immigration policy.

“This is the consequence of the failure of ‘catch and release’ for a long time,” he said, referring to the U.S. immigration practice of releasing authorized immigrants while they await hearings, rather than keeping them in custody.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Republicans would work on immigration legislation to address the separation of families at the border. (Video: The Washington Post)

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the chamber’s third-ranking Republican, said Trump made a commitment to “enforce immigration laws. And I don’t think anybody should be real surprised by that. I think this is sort of one of those byproducts and probably, in some ways, [an] unintended consequence of that policy.”

Republicans’ worries about a backlash to family separations have been magnified in Texas, which shares a 1,254-mile border with Mexico and is home to a sizable immigrant population. Detention centers in the state where children are being held in chain-link-fence cages have come under the glare of a national spotlight.

‘Zero-tolerance policy means zero humanity:’ Democrats decry Trump immigration policy after tour of detention center

“It’s a problem that needs to be fixed and I think there is a common-ground solution that keeps families together,” Cruz said Tuesday.

In a conversation published last week by KERA in Texas, Cruz took a very different stance. “This is an issue that I think the media has largely constructed,” he said, adding, “When you see reporters, when you see Democrats, saying, ‘Don’t separate kids from their parent,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘Don’t arrest illegal aliens.’ ”

Democratic lawmakers have been protesting the separation policy for weeks and angrily pressed Trump to end it. Last week, Cruz’s Democratic challenger, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, visited a Border Patrol station and processing center and gave a speech on the House floor about his findings. On Sunday, he marched to a tent city housing children.

“I tried to explain to my 7 year old why kids his age and younger are in detention centers without their parents. He asked ‘did they do something bad?’” O’Rourke tweeted Tuesday.

This past weekend, Cruz was playing late-night talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel in a charity one-on-one basketball game.

Republicans started feeling the pressure this week. Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster who is working for Cruz and other Republican Senate candidates, said Monday that family separations had the potential to resonate more intensely with voters than the debate about the fate of young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers.”

“One reason that this story could become more than DACA ever was is that there are, and will continue to be, pictures of these kids,” said Wilson, using an acronym for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which ended. “That takes it from an intellectual debate to an emotional one, and emotional messages can be game-changers.”

At a Senate Republican luncheon Tuesday, Cruz handed out a point-by-point summary of his plan, according to a senator who attended. His fellow Texan John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican senator, also sprung into action, leading an effort to spur the Senate to address the controversy.

On Wednesday, Cruz, Cornyn and several other GOP senators introduced legislation that would keep immigrant families together in detention, add 225 federal immigration judges and require the Homeland Security secretary and the Attorney General to prioritize cases involving children and families in residential centers.

Cornyn said that he and Cruz plan to visit the border towns of McAllen and Brownsville, Texas on Friday.

“The executive order, I think, is positive step in the right direction,” Cruz said. He predicted the order would run into legal challenges and “ultimately, the solution here needs to be through Congress.”

Trump urges House GOP to fix immigration system, expresses no strong preference on rival bills amid uproar over family separations

Since joining the Senate in 2013, the Canadian-born Cruz has staked out ground on the hard right when it comes to immigration. As a presidential candidate beginning in 2015, he disparaged as “amnesty” a broad Senate bill that would have created a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

But this year, he faces a well-funded opponent in a state where demographic trends have given Democrats hope about making strides with each election. Although Texas still leans Republican, Democrats believe the fast-growing Hispanic population will enable them to compete more and more in statewide contests.

Right now, the Senate race in Texas is not considered a top-tier contest by Republican or Democratic leaders in Washington. Cruz leads in recent polls and has been aggressively campaigning in the state.

Still, as Republicans brace for a tough midterm election amid the swirl of controversy surrounding Trump, they recognize that the campaign could become more competitive in the fall.

For Cruz, the challenge is keeping his conservative base motivated while not alienating more moderate Republican voters. His latest positioning on the family separation issue marks another twist in his long, tortured relationship with Trump, who is immensely popular with voters on the right.

In the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Cruz and Trump traded deeply personal attacks about Cruz’s wife and his Cuban-born father, Rafael. But after the election, their relationship improved. Cruz even wrote a glowing Time magazine item about Trump earlier this year.

Cruz introduced his bill Tuesday with a news release from his office that did not say anything negative about Trump.

Less than 24 hours later, word arrived that the Trump administration would be reversing its controversial policy. But not before exposing a challenge for the Republican Party that threatens to strike again between now and the November election.