WASHINGTON– 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.”
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.
Whether the bills will pass this week is anyone’s guess.
After congressional Republicans worked closely with White House staff to negotiate the compromise bill, 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, also 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.
At a news conference on the US-Mexico border on Monday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi accused Republicans of “fraud” for proposing a legislative fix to keep the families together in detention, saying “what they have in their bill makes matters worse for children.”
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.”