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Congressional Republicans Race To Minimize Damage From Trump Family Separation Policy

President Trump is meeting with House Republicans to discuss immigration votes later this week. But GOP lawmakers are facing increasing pressure to end the Administration’s family separation policy.

President Trump presides over a meeting about immigration with Republican and Democratic members of Congress at the White House on Tuesday. Congress and the White House are trying to work out an immigration deal prior to Jan. 19.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
President Trump presides over a meeting about immigration with Republican and Democratic members of Congress at the White House on Tuesday. Congress and the White House are trying to work out an immigration deal prior to Jan. 19.

Updated at 2:20 p.m. ET

Congressional Republicans are racing to find legislative options to stop a White House policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the U.S. border amid widespread condemnation of the practice.

Republicans in both the House and the Senate began ramping up pressure on the White House to reverse the policy Monday amid outcry about children being housed in detention centers after being separated from their parents. President Trump is scheduled to meet with House Republicans on immigration Tuesday evening and lawmakers expect the family separation issue to be a prominent part of that conversation.

Trump further complicated the already chaotic atmosphere around immigration Tuesday afternoon when he seemed to dismiss some nascent proposals to change the policy and vowed to change House GOP legislation if it is passed.

Trump told an audience at the National Federation of Independent Businesses that current law gives his administration only two options for handling people who cross the border illegally: “Totally open borders or criminal prosecution.”

“What I’m asking Congress to do is to give us a third option which we have been requesting last year,” Trump said. “The legal authority to detain and properly remove families together as a unit.”

Many in Congress, including many Trump supporters, say he is wrong. A growing number of Republicans have pushed back, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who is circulating a letter to urge the White House to suspend the policy immediately to give Congress time to address the issue.

The clash is the latest flare-up in what has become a nearly monthlong drama within the Republican party over immigration. Trump’s latest demands add even greater pressure on congressional Republicans to pass legislation despite deep, long-standing divides within the party over how to handle both legal and illegal immigration.

Many Republicans worry that it could take Congress weeks or more to craft a bill that can pass both the House and the Senate. Congress has not been able to pass comprehensive immigration legislation for several decades. One hurdle this week is that Republicans can’t agree if they should fix the family separation issue on its own or include it in a broader bill — like spending legislation or a more comprehensive immigration policy overhaul.

“Congress doesn’t have the best track record in moving quickly on things like this,” said Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton.

The House is expected to vote later this week on a pair of immigration proposals that are expected to address the issue of family separation but it isn’t clear that either bill has the votes to pass. Many Republicans say privately that they are concerned that a failure to act quickly will result in a prolonged crisis and public outrage. And this latest internal battle over the issue comes months before the November midterms. GOP lawmakers want to tout economic numbers and their tax cut bill, but the president is keeping the spotlight on the contentious issue of immigration instead.

The result has been a haphazard series of targeted legislative proposals from different factions of the GOP that address pieces of the problem, instead of a broader immigration overhaul effort.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was among the first Republicans to say he will introduce legislation which would double the number of federal immigration judges to 750, expand detention facilities with temporary shelters and expedite processing for asylum claims while mandating that families be housed together during the proceedings.

“It is a solution that guarantees that children stay with their parents and also provides funding and expedited processes so claims of asylum can be adjudicated and adjudicated promptly,” Cruz told reporters Tuesday. “I believe all of us need to come together and solve this problem. Nobody wants to see children pulled away from their parents.”

But Trump seemed to dismiss that proposal on Tuesday, and others like it in his speech on Tuesday afternoon.

“Ultimately we need to have a real border, not judges,” Trump said. “Thousands and thousands of judges they want to hire. Who are these people?”

Increased judicial capacity is the cornerstone of several of the plans circulating among Republicans. Trump’s statement raises fresh doubts that he will sign any solution that is reached.

Senate GOP leaders are hoping to craft a consensus plan in the coming days, according to GOP sources. Other senators, including Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, also say they are working on legislation.

Cornyn, the number two Republican in the Senate, in particular has great sway within Senate GOP circles, and is working with Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, on a bill to expedite hearings and keep families together.

“I don’t think we should have to choose between enforcing the law and keeping families together,” Cornyn said. “I think we can do both.”

Cornyn was among the first senators to agree with the White House position that Congress has a responsibility to address the issue.

Another proposal from conservative House Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., would keep families together while cracking down on the rules for those seeking asylum. Meadows announced the proposal at an informal press conference at the White House on Tuesday following a meeting with Trump.

“By cutting down on asylum fraud, we can keep families together without running a greater risk of traffickers or violent criminals using children to take advantage of the rules,” Meadows said in a statement. “We need to better enforce our immigration laws, but we can do so while keeping parents and children together.”

Meadows said his bill is a backup plan if the House fails to pass broader immigration proposals this week.

Democrats are not backing any of the Republican efforts to end family separation. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., dismissed language in the broader House Republican immigration bill, saying it “doesn’t deal with the issue.” He said Democrats want to see an up-or-down vote on a stand-alone bill along the lines of the measure introduced by California Sen. Diane Feinstein, and supported by all 49 Senate Democrats.

Feinstein’s proposal hasn’t gained traction among most Republicans, in part because it includes pointed language some view as political.

“An agency may not remove a child from a parent or legal guardian solely for the policy goal of deterring individuals from migrating to the United States,” the bill says. “Or for the policy goal of promoting compliance with civil immigration laws.”

Top Republicans have dismissed that bill as insufficient.

“It doesn’t solve the real problem,” Cornyn said.

But Colorado GOP Rep. Mike Coffman, who is facing pressure to act as one of the most vulnerable House GOP members facing re-election this fall, tweeted that he was supportive of the Democratic bill.

House Republican leaders are primarily still focused on upcoming votes on a pair of broader immigration bills. The first bill up for a vote on Thursday will be a hard-line conservative proposal written by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., that is expected to fail. The second bill is a compromise between conservatives and centrists that has been brokered by House GOP leaders. That bill has a slightly better odds, though leaders have stopped short of promising it will pass.

Support for the compromise bill may hinge on what Trump tells House GOP members at the closed-door meeting Tuesday night. Many members are wary of supporting any immigration bill following a chaotic week where Trump appeared to switch his position on immigration several times.

Some members fear that Trump has a history of mercurial support for policies, like the omnibus spending bill earlier this year and during the health care debate in 2017. In both cases, Trump said he backed certain policies only to turn around later and blast the same idea — and those who voted for them — later on Twitter.

That lack of confidence and fear of retribution could make it significantly harder for Republicans to pass any politically risky immigration proposals ahead of the midterm elections in November.

NPR’s Scott Detrow contributed to this report

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