Facing a rebellion in their own ranks, House Republican leaders scrapped their plans to vote this week on their first border security bill of the new Congress, blaming the weather for the delay but buying themselves time to try to stiffen the bill and make it more palatable to conservatives.
It’s the second bill in as many weeks that Republican leaders have had to pull after internal opposition. Last week the GOP scrapped a bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, acting the night before the March for Life, after realizing that some female Republican House members had concerns.
The border bill had to be pulled after conservatives objected, saying it didn’t do enough to build the border fence or to step up enforcement against illegal immigrants in the interior of the U.S.
Rank-and-file Republicans said they’ve been assured the delay is temporary — a similar assurance was given to pro-lifers on their bill last week — and the border bill will be brought back once GOP leaders can add other get-tough provisions to it. They are looking to combine it with updated versions of interior enforcement bills that passed in the previous Congress.
“The idea was just to get the companion bill out here. That is the game plan,” said Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, Georgia Republican. “It all depends on the progress in [the House] Judiciary [Committee] and them getting it done.”
GOP leaders were facing a truncated schedule — the House is only slated to be in through early Wednesday afternoon this week so that Democrats can attend their annual policy retreat in Philadelphia beginning that evening — and the prospect of needing several amendments to win back wavering Republicans’ support.
More than five dozen amendments had been filed to be offered on the bill as of Monday afternoon, including proposals to require construction of the full 700-mile, two-tier pedestrian fence that Congress authorized in the 2006 Secure Fence Act but gutted just a year later; cutting foreign assistance to the Central American countries whose citizens flooded the U.S. border last summer; and insisting the Border Patrol detain and quickly deport all illegal immigrants they apprehend.
Most of the Central American illegal immigrants caught last summer were released into the interior of the U.S., where they disappeared into the large illegal immigrant population already here.
Rep. Michael T. McCaul, the Texas Republican who wrote the border bill, said last summer’s surge was part of what he was trying to combat in his new legislation.
His bill ordered the Department of Homeland Security to build an additional 48 miles of fencing, to add more technology to the border and to come up with a strategy that would stop 100 percent of illegal smuggling and border crossings within five years.
After hearing complaints that the bill wasn’t tough enough, he wrote an update Monday that would have banned top political appointees at the Department of Homeland Security from attending conferences, taking flights on government planes, collecting bonuses or getting salary increases until they built the new fencing.
Mr. McCaul said he wrote the bill after talking with Border Patrol agents in the field. But the National Border Patrol Council, which represents line agents, announced its opposition to the bill over the weekend, fueling conservatives’ complaints. The agents said the bill didn’t increase their manpower nor fix their training, which was cut the last time there was an agent hiring spree.
GOP leaders need to keep their troops on board, because they aren’t getting any support from Democrats, who say Republicans should stop trying to boost enforcement and instead let Mr. Obama carry out the laws as he sees best.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Homeland Security, poked GOP leaders for their inability to get the bill straightened out Monday.
“They can blame inclement weather all they want, but we all know that it was the storm clouds over this bill and its murky prospects that are the real drivers,” he said. “Interestingly, even the most extreme right-wing elements of the House Republican Conference, which the bill was written for, could not get on board with this legislation.”
Democrats urged Republicans to scrap their new bill altogether and go back to a bipartisan bill that cleared the Committee on Homeland Security last year. That legislation would push the Department of Homeland Security to make strides on border security, but it lacked the teeth of the new bill.
The border bill fight is the second immigration battle of the new Congress.
The House earlier this month passed a homeland security funding bill that includes language canceling President Obama’s 2012 amnesty for so-called Dreamers, or illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, and his 2014 amnesty for illegal immigrant parents.
That bill is still awaiting action in the Senate, but Republican leaders there have already conceded they lack the votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster.