It's becoming increasingly clear that Congress won't address the border crisis until sometime after its upcoming August recess. The gulf between the House and Senate border crisis proposals is too great and the timeline too short, members and congressional aides indicated this week.
"I think that if you are focusing on the House, they’re going very bad over there because the Republicans can’t agree what they want," said Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid, a top Democrat, in a press conference Tuesday. "The Democrats aren’t going to support some of their crazy ideas, and the Republicans can’t agree which crazy idea they want to put forward."
Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the Senate Republican leadership team, also said progress on the crisis is unlikely.
"Unfortunately, it looks like we’re on a track to do absolutely nothing, which to me is the definition of political malpractice," said Cornryn.
The major disagreement holding up the proposals has been whether to keep legal protections granted in 2008 to unaccompanied minors from non-continuous states, mainly Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The Obama Administration, House Republicans and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who has authored a border bill with Cornyn, argue minors from those countries should be treated the same as Mexican minors, who are screened and deported more quickly by the Border Patrol. The House GOP border working group recommended to its conference Wednesday to craft a bill that would deploy the National Guard and amend the 2008 law to treat all children the same way. The Senate's bill, which will be introduced Wednesday, doesn't do either.
The Senate will likely vote on its bill next week, a Senate Democratic leadership aide tells TIME, mere days before the summer recess. Another Senate aide tells TIME that expectations of getting a bill signed before August are “slim to none” and that senators are already looking at options to take up the legislation in September. On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner said the House has not made a decision on when it will introduce its bill.
If Congress does nothing, the Administration will be hard-pressed to handle the surge of unaccompanied minors—more than 57,000 have been apprehended since October, according to administration officials—and may take it upon itself to act. Two departments in charge of arresting and removing immigrants who are in the country illegally—Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection—will go broke by mid-September, according to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, and the Department of Health and Human Services, which temporarily houses such children, is overwhelmed. If Obama is going to act on his own, he will have to move quickly amid flak from both sides of the aisle.
While Republicans may agree with the Administration on changing the 2008 law, they roundly criticize President Obama’s $3.7 billion request to handle the crisis as too high. Boehner called it a “blank check” Wednesday, saying that the House will tie a $1.5 billion proposal with the policy changes.
"Without trying to fix the problem, I don’t know how we actually are in a position to give the President any more money," Boehner said.
The Senate's version of the bill, meanwhile, includes $2.73 billion to address the border crisis, still $1 billion below the President's request. It also includes funding for Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system and fighting wildfires raging in the American west.
Republicans have continued to hammer the White House for not reacting to the border crisis warning signals sparked two years ago nor the dramatic surge of migrants in March. They have also latched onto a report by the Congressional Budget Office that says the Administration's plan would only allocate $25 million through September, with the majority of the funds coming next fiscal year.
But Obama faces pressure on his left as well, and he has seen the border crisis lead to an unusually high level of intra-party friction. Last week, in a meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus near the White House, Obama shot down a request to grant asylum as refugees to the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children at the southwestern border.
“I can’t go there,” said Obama, according to Cuellar, who was in the room, citing border security concerns. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX), the Chairman of the Hispanic Caucus, told TIME that the meeting's main focus was to oppose the 2008 law and to express "its collective unity in ensuring that these children receive due process under the law." The White House did not return a request for comment for this article.
Democratic leaders have in turn slammed the proposal changing the way the U.S. treats non-contiguous minors. On the Senate floor Monday, Reid called the policy inhuman. “You wouldn’t send an animal back to this, let alone a little boy or girl,” he said. On Saturday, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said that the way the U.S. treats Mexican children is “abusive” and “deplorable.”
“Just so you know he’s a Texan before he’s a Democrat,” Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) joked last week of Cuellar, who has come under friendly fire for co-sponsoring a bill with Cornyn that would change the 2008 law. In an interview with TIME, Cuellar shot back at Pelosi for flip-flopping on how to try the Central American children. Pelosi's office has maintained that she has never supported any changes that would negatively impact the children's due process.
“She changed her position,” said Cuellar, noting that Pelosi had said that altering the 2008 law would "not [be] a deal breaker." “It’s not only going against my position, but she is going against the Administration’s position, Secretary Johnson’s position and going against 18,500 Border Patrol agents that are on the ground that work on this day after day.”
Cuellar added that he and Pelosi have a "strong" working relationship, despite their current disagreement. “After we address this issue, the sun will rise, it will be a new day, we don't burn any bridges, and we're going to continue working on other issues together,” said Cuellar.
With reporting by Zeke Miller/Washington