WASHINGTON (AP) – House Republicans pushed legislation on Friday that could clear the way for eventual deportation of more than 500,000 immigrants brought here illegally as kids and address the surge of immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
After more than a year of inaction on the contentious issue of immigration, House GOP leaders were optimistic about securing tea party and other conservative support for two bills that Republicans can highlight when they return home to voters during Congress’ five-week summer break.
Votes were expected late Friday.
House Republicans were still making last-minute changes to the bills on Friday, a day after leaders were forced to abandon a scheduled vote in the face of tea party opposition. It was an embarrassment for the new leadership team and left them cajoling reluctant lawmakers on Friday.
“We’re in very good shape,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the new majority leader.
The gridlock on the border crisis reflected the past 18 months of a divided, dysfunctional Congress that has little legislation to show for its days in Washington but plenty of abysmal public approval numbers.
The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill more than a year ago that would create a pathway for citizenship for the 11.5 million immigrants living here illegally, tighten border security and establish new visa and enforcement programs. The measure has languished in the House despite calls from national Republicans, business groups, religious organizations and labor for lawmakers to act.
The revised, $694 million border security bill would provide $35 million for the National Guard and clarify a provision on quickly returning unaccompanied minors from Central America to their home countries. President Barack Obama had requested $3.7 billion to handle the tens of thousands flooding into the United States.
To appeal to hard-core immigration foes, Republicans also toughened a companion bill targeting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Barack Obama implemented in 2012 and Republicans blame for the flood of immigrants now.
The bill states that the president cannot renew or expand the program, effectively paving the way for deportation of children brought to the U.S. illegally, according to several House Republicans.
“Overall there is a distrust of the president,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas. “There’s a concern about giving him wiggle room, and if you give him money, he’ll do what he wants to with it.”
Two of the fiercest immigration opponents – Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. – said they were enthusiastically on board after meeting with leadership Thursday night. The conservative group Heritage Action urged members to back the bill, saying it essentially freezes the program by denying it federal dollars.
“We got to yes,” Bachmann said. “This is a tremendous accomplishment ”
Even if the House passes the border bill, Obama’s request for more money to deal with the crisis will go unanswered. The Senate blocked its version of a border security bill, and there are no plans to work out any compromise before Congress returns in September.
Emerging from a closed-door GOP meeting, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., rejected the notion that it was a pointless exercise since the Senate won’t act.
“It’ll be the template for what needs to be done and also it might slow the president down,” Mica told reporters.
The border crisis has changed the political dynamic, with polls showing support for immigration overhaul dropping. Moderate House Republicans were intent on returning home with a vote on the border crisis three months before midterm elections.
“The American people expect us to do our jobs,” said moderate GOP Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. “We have both a border and humanitarian crisis to deal with, and they expect us to take action now.”
The Senate blocked a $3.5 billion border package that also included money for Western wildfires and Israel, with Republicans and two Democrats – Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and Joe Manchin of West Virginia – opposed. Opponents argued that the bill amounted to a blank check for Obama with no policy changes.
The Senate vote was 50-44, short of the 60 votes necessary to move forward on the measure.
Congress did manage to approve a bipartisan, $16.3 billion bill to revamp the problem-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs and address the long wait times for health care for millions of veterans. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the bill 91-3 and sent it to Obama for his signature.
The Senate also relented and backed the House’s version of a bill providing $10.8 billion for highway and transit projects at the height of the summer construction season, sending it to the White House. The vote was 81-13 for the measure that funds programs through May.
The failure of the House to pass the border security bill exposed bitter divisions within the GOP.
Some conservatives opposed any additional spending on border security. Others complained that the companion bill targeting the 2-year-old program for kids brought here illegally was not retroactive to 2012, when Obama implemented it.
Sessions had spent days making the case against the House bill to conservatives, especially members of the Alabama and Mississippi congressional delegations. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said Sessions’ arguments swayed lawmakers.
“To kind of put it in perspective, Jeff Sessions is probably held in higher esteem than the Alabama football coach and the Auburn football coach put together,” Brooks told reporters.
Over pizza Wednesday night at his office, tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas also met with a group of House Republicans. The involvement of Sessions and Cruz clearly frustrated Republicans who wanted a vote on the border bill.
“It’s kind of shocking to me that some people are willing to turn their voting cards over to the Senate or outside groups,” Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., told reporters.
Democrats relished the Republican divide, with Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., derisively referring to “Speaker Cruz.”
Associated Press writers David Espo, Matthew Daly, Alan Fram, Stephen Ohlemacher and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.
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