Trump to huddle with Republicans during crucial week on immigration

President Donald Trump will meet with Republicans Tuesday on Capitol Hill at a pivotal moment -- both for his preside...

Posted: Jun 20, 2018 4:30 PM
Updated: Jun 20, 2018 4:30 PM

President Donald Trump will meet with Republicans Tuesday on Capitol Hill at a pivotal moment -- both for his presidency and his party -- as the GOP-controlled House of Representatives prepares to hold major votes on two very different immigration bills this week.

But it's the heart-wrenching stories of immigrant families being separated at the border that are suddenly dominating the news and igniting sustained public wrath against the Trump administration -- all at a time when Republicans are searching for enough unity on immigration to approve legislation that was once thought impossible to pass.

Adding to the drama is a President who's doubling down on defending the separation policy while also causing heartburn on the Hill, going back and forth about whether he would support one of the bills set to come to the floor this week, even though his own White House helped negotiate that very measure.

While the White House has said he backs both bills, some Republicans are still skittish that the President could thwart the hard-fought compromise bill with a random tweet or off-the-cuff comment.

"I'm a lot nervous," said one GOP aide. "Just the slip of the tongue by the President and you can blow this whole thing up."

Just hours before heading to the Hill Tuesday, Trump unloaded on Democrats over immigration, once again blaming them for the family separations and accusing them on Twitter of wanting "illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13."

And in a speech, he strayed from his prepared remarks to express frustration about the issue and said he planned to make changes to the legislation.

"So, we have a House that's getting ready to finalize an immigration package that they're going to brief me on later, and then I'm gonna make changes to it," Trump said while speaking to small business owners in Washington. "We have one chance to get it right. We might as well get it right, or let's just keep it going."

Republicans have been working behind closed doors for weeks to hammer out an agreement that will make it possible for members on both ends of the GOP spectrum to get a vote on an immigration bill they prefer.

One bill, known as the Goodlatte bill -- after its direction from Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia -- appeals to the more conservative hardline wing of the party.

The other legislation, known as the compromise bill, aims to give recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an eventual path to citizenship while also giving the President and his supporters $25 billion for border security and his signature wall.

In the uproar over family separations, Republicans have also been crafting what they see as a legislative approach that would keep families together in detention, a provision that they've added to both bills.

Trump's comments about making "changes" were referencing the new provision on family separation, multiple sources told CNN.

Lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have also been introducing their own standalone proposals on family separation in case the two immigration bills fail. Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, has a measure that would keep families together in while in custody of the Department of Homeland Security.

On the Senate side, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is proposing so speed up the asylum process, double the number of immigration judges, and mandate families must be kept together. Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, is re-introducing his 2014 proposal designed to keep families together, but speed up court dates and the deportation process for minors.

Meanwhile, Republicans are closely watching the President this week for any comments he makes about the legislation, especially the compromise bill.

After congressional Republicans worked closely with White House staff to negotiate the compromise plan, Trump took to Twitter on Friday to bash it, sparking confusion among Republicans in Congress who thought the bill would have the President's support.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, previewing the President's visit to Capitol Hill, said Monday that Trump does in fact back the bill. Ryan expressed confidence that the compromise bill could not only pass the House, but also the Senate -- an optimistic view after Congress has consistently failed to pass major immigration legislation for years.

"I believe the Senate could pass it," Ryan said Monday in an interview with conservative radio host Jay Weber of Wisconsin. "That's what Senator McConnell has led me to believe, which is (if) we pass something out of the House that has the President's support -- which this does have the president's support -- then you very well could see the Senate passing it."

But saddling the debate is mounting public outrage from both sides of the aisle over families being ripped apart at the border. Last month the Trump administration started prosecuting all immigrants who attempt to illegally cross the border, resulting in children being separated from their parents who undergo criminal prosecution.

According to a new CNN poll, two-thirds of Americans disapprove of the practice, while only 28% approve. A majority of Republicans, however, support the policy, demonstrating why GOP lawmakers face a political puzzle in resolving the issue. Many don't want to see families separated but they also don't want to return to the previous "catch and release" policy. That entailed detaining families, then letting them go into the United States while serving them with a court date.

"I don't think the answer to family separation is to not enforce the law," said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn. "I think the answer to family separation is to not separate families while you are enforcing the law."

To address the issue, Republicans are adding provisions to both the Goodlatte bill, as well as the more moderate compromise bill, that aim to keep the families together, even if that means keeping them together while still in custody with the Department of Homeland Security.

"I think the whole thing is a hot mess," Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said Monday. While he supports the practice of "arresting people who break the law," he agrees that children should stay with their parents. "That would be my strong preference."

Republican Rep. Jeff Denham of California, one of the lead negotiators on the compromise bill, said on CNN that "there is only a limited amount of options you can have at the border."

"You can let them run freely and keep the family together, or you can have quick due process at the border -- adjudicating the issue immediately so that you don't have a long detention time in one of these centers," he continued. "But you got to keep the family together."

Even if the provision passes, Democrats say it's not enough to let the families stay together in detention. Rather, they're calling for Trump to simply reverse the new policy to prosecute all immigrants making illegal crossings.

"So you put them in a correctional facility with their parents? Hooray, isn't that nice. You put them behind bars? Isn't that wonderful. What a compassionate alternative that is," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday. "No, we don't think that's an alternative."

If neither immigration bill passes this week, it's unclear what Republicans will do on the family separation issue. But Republican leaders say the compromise bill this week could be the key to passing the first major immigration legislation of the Trump administration.

"You don't ever know until you try," Ryan said in the radio interview. "I think this is the best chance at law that we have."

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