Immigration reform: Last minute battle to produce border bill before Congress leaves town

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There's nothing like a crisis to attract all sorts of political attention. And there's nothing like a spending bill to heighten the tension. Money becomes a magnet - attracting all sorts of seemingly unrelated issues. Combine that with a countdown clock, ticking off the hours before Congress leaves town for the August recess and you have some real drama on Capitol Hill over immigration legislation.

President Obama asked for $3.7 billion to address the crisis of unaccompanied minors from Honduras, Guatemala, and El  Salvador who have been flooding across the border. 

The Democrat-controlled Senate is expected to vote on a supplemental spending bill that includes $2.7 billion for border security. But as long as you're out scraping up votes for one thing, why not throw in money for wildfires - $615 million - and even $225 to help beef up Israel's anti-missile "Iron Dome"?

On Tuesday, House Republicans unveiled their version of an immigration bill. It includes $659 million in emergency border funding through the end of September. Most of it - about two thirds - will pay for sending National Guard troops to the border, adding immigration judges, and increasing beds in detention facilities. A third of the money would go to the Department of Health and Human Services, which has responsibility for minors crossing the border. The bill also contains a provision to change the 2008 child trafficking law that requires an immigration hearing for minor children crossing the border from countries other than Mexico or Canada. The House bill would allow speedy removal of all undocumented children without a hearing.

The various attachments are meant to secure votes on the two bills. But they may not be enough. The Senate version may not have enough GOP support to pass. And even House Speaker John Boehner says there's "a little more work to do" to get enough votes to pass the Republican-backed measure. 

House Democrats have lined up to shoot it down. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says there's not enough money for legal representation, "especially of the children who need it even more, but of anyone on our soil." Los Angeles Democrat Tony Cardenas says the attachments are a "poison pill." He says he can't vote for something that "weakens the due process for kids that may be fleeing for their lives." Lucille Roybal-Allard of Los Angeles says failure to pass a clean bill - in other words, one without the GOP add-ons - means "children will languish even longer in the tiny, overcrowded holding cells that I saw when I was at the border a week ago," sleeping on concrete floors and benches for lack of enough beds.

Without Democratic support, the GOP leadership will need nearly all of its members to pass the House measure. San Diego Republican, Duncan Hunter says he'll support the bill, since it contains more enforcement and expedites the removal of undocumented children. "I think it's good," he says.

But some hardliner GOP House members say the measure doesn't address the issue of President Obama's use of executive action to allow some undocumented young people to avoid deportation. Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach is one lawmaker who wanted language that rescinded the President's order on DREAMERS. But he says, "just because it doesn't have everything, it doesn't mean you have to vote against it." Congressman Paul Cook of Barstow says he's satisfied, but adds there's also folks on his side of the aisle who "probably have some issues with the cost." 

The plot thickened Tuesday afternoon, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested that whatever version the Republican-controlled House passed, it might open the door to a conference committee to tackle comprehensive immigration reform. "If they're finally sending us something on immigration," he said, "maybe we can do that." Last summer, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform offering a path to citizenship. But House Speaker John Boehner immediately labeled it "a deceitful and cynical attempt to derail the House’s common-sense solution" saying the House will not take up immigration reform, or allow any provisions such as the DREAM Act to be attached to the House’s legislation. "Any attempt to exploit this crisis by adding such measures will run into a brick wall in the People’s House." Rohrabacher accused the Senate of acting “unhonorably and try to smash down our throats an immigration bill that is not a compromise, but represents a huge victory for illegal immigrants.”

But Reid's suggestion that it could open the door to another run at comprehensive immigration reform could be enough to convince conservatives, who are on the fence about the GOP-backed border funding bill, to vote against it.

Which leads us back to the ticking clock. 

Congress leaves town in less than three days. It's not just for a summer recess. Many will launch into a month of heavy campaigning before the midterm elections. Both parties are looking for issues to run on and talking points to take to their home districts.

So expect the drama to continue on Capitol Hill, ahead of a Senate procedural vote on the funding bill Wednesday and an expected House vote on Thursday.

This Story has been updated:  On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate advanced their $2.7 billion dollar emergency funding measure.  Speaking from the floor of the Senate, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein said provisions for additional judges and legal representation could ease the crisis. She cited a Miami judge who says kids with lawyers voluntarily return to their home country 60 percent of the time. "Why?" Feinstein said, "A judge can't make a phone call. But they had the attorneys who could make the calls, do the necessary preparation and see that a safe home could be arranged." 

Final votes on  the separate House bill and the Senate version are expected on Thursday.

 

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