As one Senate committee’s members appear to have hit a wall in their efforts to craft a bill to fix family separations at the border, a second Senate panel is quietly starting their own negotiations.
The new push comes as the politics of family separation legislation has grown increasingly partisan as both sides seize on the issue to fire up their bases heading into the November midterm elections, where the control of Congress hangs in the balance.
But GOP Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonThe Hill's Morning Report — 99 days: Inside the sprint to Nov. 6 GOP senator on Trump shutdown threat: 'I don't think it'd be helpful' Trump threatens government shutdown over border security MORE (Wis.) wants the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which he oversees, to try to hash out an agreement on legislation after the negotiations among Judiciary Committee members stalled.
Johnson is convening members of his committee on Wednesday to start talks aimed at finding a bipartisan starting point for a new round of negotiations.
“We’re holding a meeting … to first kind of lay out the goals, find out what we can agree on. Let’s make sure we all agree on the facts. If we don’t, try to reconcile the disagreements and then move forward in a problem-solving type of process,” Johnson told The Hill on Tuesday.
“It is said that one eats an elephant one bite at time. As recent history proves, the problems surrounding immigration are complex and difficult to tackle. I suggest we focus on this one issue, family separation versus ‘catch and release’, and attempt to take one bite out of the immigration and border security debate,” Johnson says in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Hill.
With Republicans holding a majority on the committee they could pass legislation without help from Democrats. But any legislation will need bipartisan support — and 60 votes — to ultimately clear the Senate.
Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillHillicon Valley: Manafort trial is Mueller's first courtroom test | Dem eyes options for tech crackdown | Activist publishes 11K Wikileaks Twitter messages | Trump, officials huddle on election security | How the 'Abolish ICE' hashtag caught fire Impersonator contacted Dem senator seeking information about Russia sanctions Senate Dem: ‘Widespread’ phishing attacks targeting political parties, senators MORE (Mo.), the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, warned that the talks were in the early stages and not close to being ready to move legislation.
“We’re a long way from any kind of agreement. I always want to keep the door open to any kind of discussion that can address any of the items that we have an our to-do list as it relates to immigration,” she told The Hill. “[But] we’re just at the beginning part of that process.”
Any attempt to fix family separation faces an uphill fight in the Senate. An initial round of talks — spearheaded by Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump weighs big tax cut for rich: report The Hill's Morning Report — 99 days: Inside the sprint to Nov. 6 Ted Cruz on Alex Jones Facebook ban: ‘Who the hell made Facebook the arbiter of political speech?’ MORE (R-Texas), Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSupreme Court fight becomes battle for Kavanaugh’s papers Grassley requests some but not all of Kavanaugh papers at Bush White House Schumer pushes George W. Bush to release Kavanaugh documents MORE (D-Calif.), Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisThe Hill's Morning Report — 99 days: Inside the sprint to Nov. 6 Senate GOP shoots down talk of impeaching Rosenstein Family separation bills blocked on Senate floor MORE (R-N.C.) and Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinRand Paul announces support for Kavanaugh Dems call for investigation into DOJ's role in family separation policy Parties face excited midterm electorate with reservations MORE (D-Ill.) — stalemated earlier this month amid deep party-line divisions on what to do with detained families.
Feinstein said on Tuesday that the four are continuing to talk and she is “hopeful that we are close to an agreement and the bill could enjoy broad bipartisan support.”
But senators at times talked past each other at a Judiciary Committee hearing on separated families. Republicans touted legislation from Tillis, while Democrats urged the Senate to pass legislation from Feinstein. Neither of the bills have bipartisan support.
Two issues which are crucial to any agreement have emerged as major roadblocks to any negotiations: What to do about the Flores settlement, which places restrictions on how long children can be detained, and alternatives to detaining families together for potentially indefinite periods of time.
“There’s a profound disagreement between the parties as to whether you need to do anything to allow the department … to keep the families together,” Tillis said on Tuesday, adding that Democrats hadn’t indicated they are open to changing Flores.
As part of the executive order signed last month by Trump, the administration is asking the courts to alter the decades-old agreement, which has been determined to bar the detention of most immigrant children at 20 days.
Asked how he would get an agreement on Flores, Johnson acknowledged that if lawmakers want to keep families together while also enforcing immigration laws “something’s got to give.”
“We’ll talk through it. I don’t know what the outcome will be. I think the Senate Judiciary bill makes a lot of sense, so we’ll start with that structure and we’ll see where we go from there,” he said.
Immigration legislation normally falls under the purview of the Judiciary Committee. Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP leaders hope to circumvent Trump on shutdown This week: Senate tries to wrap up before brief break Supreme Court fight becomes battle for Kavanaugh’s papers MORE (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, noted that there was a “jurisdictional issue” with any family separation legislation but that he was “anxious” to see what Johnson could come up with.
To help ensure a bill, once it is introduced, gets sent to the Homeland Security Committee, Johnson asked his committee staff to start drafting legislation in June that would address family separations but also include border security provisions.
“I’ve spoken with Tillis and Senator Cornyn and they’ve obviously reached a bit of an impasse,” Johnson said.
According to the memo circulated to committee members, he is proposing folding a slate of border security bills — including two from McCaskill and another from Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezBooming economy has Trump taking a well-deserved victory lap Administration should use its leverage to get Egypt to improve its human rights record CNN anchors break into laughter over comedian's alleged prank call to Trump MORE (D-N.J.) — into his family separation legislation.
But the effort to jumpstart negotiations comes as the fight over immigration has become increasingly divided. The issue jumped into the national spotlight in June after Trump’s “zero tolerance” policies resulted in immigrant families being separated after they were detained along the border.
Senators tried, and failed, to pass legislation from Tillis and Feinstein on the Senate floor last week but were blocked in both cases by members of the other party. Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, called on Tuesday for Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenHillicon Valley: Manafort trial is Mueller's first courtroom test | Dem eyes options for tech crackdown | Activist publishes 11K Wikileaks Twitter messages | Trump, officials huddle on election security | How the 'Abolish ICE' hashtag caught fire Trump huddles with top officials on election security Trump 'manufactured' separations crisis, never intended to reunify families: Dem senator MORE to resign over the policy.
“It is and was a cruel policy inconsistent with the bedrock values of the nation,” Durbin said during a Judiciary Committee hearing. “Someone in this administration has to accept responsibility.”
Meanwhile, Republicans have seized on the push by some progressives to “abolish” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), arguing it’s a sign of Democrats moving to the left even as they try to defend a slate of Senate seats in red and purple states in November’s midterms.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP leaders hope to circumvent Trump on shutdown Overnight Defense: Trump doubles down on shutdown threat | Why shutdown talk worries the military | Trump open to meeting Iranian leaders | Twelve times Trump surprised the Pentagon On The Money: Trump doubles down on shutdown threat | Trump reportedly weighing big tax cut for the rich | Chamber says helping all sectors hit by tariffs would cost B MORE (R-Ky.) visited an ICE facility in Kentucky late last week and has repeatedly noted that potential 2020 White House contenders have called for nixing the agency.
“This is the moment we’re in. Leading Democrats taking cues from the open-border socialist crowd,” he said on Tuesday. “Talk about a political stunt. The American people want nothing to do with these dangerous antics.”