Both the House and Senate failed to pass their respective border bills Thursday, marking a last gasp of legislative futility before a five-week recess and leaving President Obama to grapple alone — with no increased money or powers — with the surge of illegal immigrant children.
The Senate Democrats' bill fell on a procedural vote after senators from both parties balked at giving Mr. Obama money to house the children without changing the lax immigration policies that they say entice illegal immigrants to come to the U.S. in the first place.
House Republican leaders' bill did make some changes to cancel Mr. Obama's policies and make it easier to deport children from Central America. But conservatives rebelled, saying the changes didn't go far enough, and they forced their leaders to scuttle the bill.
Republicans were trying to write another version late Thursday night for a possible vote Friday, but with senators already heading for airplanes, nothing could clear Capitol Hill until September.
That puts the focus squarely on Mr. Obama, who has hinted that he has some flexibility to detain and expedite deportations of the tens of thousands of Central American children and families crossing the border illegally — though he has been reluctant to do so.
"There are numerous steps the president can and should be taking right now, without the need for congressional action, to secure our borders and ensure these children are returned swiftly and safely to their countries," House Republican leaders said in a joint statement Thursday afternoon.
Democrats said that smacked of hypocrisy. A day earlier, House Republicans voted to sue Mr. Obama for taking too much action on his own.
The competing bills showed just how divisive the immigration issue has become in recent years.
Senate Democrats wanted to spend nearly $3 billion to house and care for the children, but rejected efforts to change a 2008 law that requires the government to place the young illegal immigrants with their families and send them through lengthy court proceedings.
House Republicans called for spending only $659 million — good enough to last another two months — and attached policy changes, including reversing the 2008 law and waiving environmental rules so the Border Patrol could pursue illegal immigrants across sensitive federal lands.
In an effort to win conservative support, Republicans added another bill that would have canceled Mr. Obama's 2012 policy granting young adult illegal immigrants, so-called dreamers, tentative legal status.
Mr. Obama vowed to veto the House legislation, and Democrats said it smacked of cruelty.
"I guess it is harder to take candy from children than they thought," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat. "The number of kids who have come to this country from Central America fleeing violence could all fit in Soldier Field with room to spare, yet about 60,000 kids have made adult American legislators lose their marbles. Republicans could not agree on how to deport them fast enough and the Democrats were not going to let a decade or more of progress in improving our asylum and human trafficking laws get thrown out for election-year politics."
Even some Democrats said the laws must be changed to remove the incentives that have caused some 60,000 Central American children, and tens of thousands more family members, to jump the U.S. border this year.
Smugglers have told families that if they can get to the U.S., they will be released pending their immigration court hearings.
Many Central Americans view that as a "permiso," or free pass to gain a foothold in the U.S.
"It is important that we send the message that our borders are closed to those who enter illegally," said Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat. "It is time to say 'enough is enough.'"
He was one of two Democrats who joined Republicans in blocking the Senate bill through a procedural budget vote.
House Republicans never even got that far. Leaders pulled the bill before asking for a vote, saying they realized they "weren't even close" to having enough support to pass the bill.
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who led the conservative rebellion, said GOP leaders lost support after they watered down the bills. But he said blame for the situation lies with the president.
"The House got off the message it should have been on, which is: This is a man-caused disaster, and the man who caused it is Barack Obama. And we need to put the onus back on him," he said. "We haven't failed here. It's the president who has set this all up. We haven't failed. We just haven't brought up the right message so the American people understand what is going on."
The White House said the flow of children began to recede in July, but it still wants the extra money requested.
"We continue to believe that those resources are necessary, simply because we have seen in the past that these numbers can be pretty volatile," press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
At one point Thursday afternoon, House Republican leaders agreed to give up and adjourn for the summer recess. But pressure from rank-and-file lawmakers forced them to try again.
"They had given up. They were ready to dismiss us," said Rep. John Fleming, Louisiana Republican.
He said that spurred the mayhem earlier on the House floor as the leadership prepared to adjourn.
Lawmakers were whiplashed by the changes in schedule.
Rep. Mo Brooks, Alabama Republican, had shed his jacket and tie, slung a backpack over his shoulder and headed out of the Capitol for the airport when he got the call to return for an impromptu meeting to try to hash out a new GOP approach.
After the meeting, he was bracing for a prolonged stay in Washington, saying he had canceled his flight and scheduled district events "for the foreseeable future."
Mr. Brooks said he opposed the bills Republican leaders tried to force through the House. He argued that the measure added Wednesday night to freeze the nondeportation policy for dreamers was counterproductive.
"This bill actually has things in there that makes things worse," he said.
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